They were an unlikely couple. Her vexing wit, inexperience with literature and "obsession with flounce and cross-stitch" mingling with his quietness, depth of soul and melancholy verse. Her breeding and social standing vs. his lack of standing, occupation and fortune. Both John Keats and Fanny Brawne desperately want to change their circumstances. But there are impossibilities in early 19th century England. It is equally impossible, though, to undo the romantic attachment between the then-failed, penniless poet and his more prosperous young neighbor.
The couple meets during the winter of 1818, when he is in his early 20s and she still a teenager. Never one to read poetry before, Fanny has her young brother Samuel and sister Toots buy a book of Keats' poems after their acquaintance. She then indulges in his words, and through them develops a hunger to learn more about the man behind the writing. Keats, in turn, gradually studies her and ultimately becomes her literature tutor—albeit a teacher with romantic ulterior motives. Their love blossoms.
Their families and friends can see, if they cannot, that because of the couple's societal differences, John and Fanny will never be able to wed. Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown is staunchest among them, telling the poet that he will lose his freedom as he struggles to provide for what Brown considers to be Fanny's frivolous needs.
When Keats' failing health solidifies his reluctant desire to mercifully sever ties with Fanny, they fight to understand and navigate their increasingly passionate relationship under the glare of pre-Victorian stuffiness and Brown's disapproval.
Bright Star beautifully illustrates all of this, the poignant and celebrated story of John and Fanny's two-year romance.
Fanny comes from a loving household that happily embraces the ailing Keats as one of their own. For his part, he is deeply compassionate, diligently caring for his dying brother Tom. Fanny follows suit, tending to both Tom's and John's needs through their sicknesses, making gifts, doing kind errands and staying at their bedsides bringing great emotional support.
John and Fanny's shared love is powerful and transformative. It simultaneously comforts, inspires, focuses and distracts them. Some of Keats' best poetry was written during the years he knew Fanny. And through his relationship with Fanny and her mother, Keats comes to better understand women.
This is a period piece, and antique English manners are seen in full force. Though deeply in love, Keats and Fanny still call each other Mr. and Miss almost to the end of their relationship: It makes one wonder what our own society would be transformed into if we more often celebrated this now-maligned civility.
Miss Brawne is an industrious and ingenious seamstress/fashion designer who takes pleasure in her craft. Keats delights in his as well, though during his life he does not share the same degree of encouragement and attention that Fanny is given for her work. But despite receiving poor reviews and questioning his literary ability, he writes because he is passionately devoted to working with the words he loves.
For all his abrasiveness, Brown selflessly cares for Keats' needs as well and loves him deeply. When he can no longer house the poet or accompany him when he travels—because of his own moral and financial weaknesses—he admits he has failed his dear friend. Into this gap, as it were, come other of John's friends who rally together to fund his passage to Italy in an attempt to improve his health. One of them puts his own life on hold to go with him. If John can be spared the stress of another harsh English winter, they believe he might live.
Heaven is mentioned in verse. Keats talks of the holiness of love. Brown tells Abigail, a kitchen maid who wants to learn how to read, that the Bible isn't as boring as she might expect. In fact, The Song of Songs, he says, is "juicy" and would make people blush.
A grieving Fanny cries, "There must be another life. You can't be created for this kind of suffering." In between sobs, she says "oh god" several times—whether in frustration or to Him it's difficult to say. In a letter written of his last moments, Keats is quoted as thanking God that the time of his death has finally come.
John and Fanny's romance, according to their letters and Bright Star, evolves not from lust, but from a meeting of intellects and hearts. As Fanny reads the poet's words, she better understands his soul, and as Keats teaches Fanny literature and discusses life with her, he better appreciates hers—though she initially exasperates him.
The real beauty in their romance is that though they're portrayed as being sexually tempted, their relationship is never carnally consummated. Fanny does offer herself to John, but he gently pushes her away and replies, "I have a conscience." And I should note that her offer comes in such a veiled manner, younger eyes who see this film won't even understand it.
So, never mind that John Keats may well be the most famous of the Romantic-era poets, it's not sexual conquest that consumes him. It's his moral responsibility and attention to Fanny's emotional and spiritual wellbeing that shine in this film. Calling the film "prudish," indiewire.com writer Eric Kohn says of Keats' noble refusal, "This might sound horribly simplistic, but [Bright Star] desperately needs a sex scene. The movie puts such prominent focus on the romantic attraction shared by two characters ... and yet the full culmination of their desire remains solely implied. As a result, Bright Star not only takes place in [England] during the 1800s; it seems like a product of that very era. Perhaps that's the point."
That is likely the point—as well as the truth. At least that last bit. Because I wholeheartedly refute the notion that the movie desperately needs a sex scene. In a modern world where premarital sex is glorified, ubiquitous and even considered healthy, it's fabulous that history and a film portray it as sacred.
John and Fanny do kiss passionately a few times onscreen. They also cuddle, fully dressed, on a bed and John talks of a day when he can kiss her "everywhere." These activities, mild as they may seem to 21st century minds, leave director Jane Campion's dedication to precise historical accuracy slightly in question since such physical contact would have put Fanny in much greater peril of contracting tuberculosis, which she never did. And because of their culture's mores, it's debatable whether even this limited intimacy would have occurred.
A side note: As a result of their relationship, Fanny is subject to scandalous gossip. English history claims that the real-life Brawne was promiscuous, but this might merely be because she enjoyed parties and dancing with the military men in her hometown. Not to mention that she was seen with Keats, a man whom all but she knew she could not marry.
In stark contrast to Keats' virtue, Brown crudely asks John why he doesn't "bed" Fanny, thinking that a sexual encounter might help him concentrate on his work again. Brown's more casual attitude toward sex is also illustrated by his flirtatious alliance with a household maid. When the girl finds she is pregnant, she accuses Brown of being the father. In Bright Star he swears to Keats that the child is not his—though historical accounts indicate otherwise—but he takes financially responsibility for the baby. Keats says of the situation, "In what stumbling ways a new soul is begun."
Infuriated by Brown's mockery of Fanny, Keats shoves his friend against a tree by his lapels. He also backs Fanny into a tree in a moment of frustration.
Emotionally distraught, Fanny reportedly asks for a knife "to kill herself." Though we don't sense that she's serious, we see a gouge on Fanny's wrist before the camera shows us her scissors.
Crude or Profane Language
Fanny yells "d--n" after the frustration of a lovers' quarrel.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine is referenced in poems. Brown smokes.
Other Negative Elements
Fanny and Brown's relationship is fairly contemptuous, with both slighting the other frequently and assuming the worst of each other's character. She bitterly accuses him of failing Keats.
To save face, Fanny lies to Brown about having read numerous, lengthy pieces of literature in only a week. And several times Fanny is rude to her siblings and mother while selfishly consumed with her own problems—both real and imagined.
Most would agree with Fanny when she tells Keats, "Poems are a strain to work out."
Several years ago, at the end of a long spring semester when sunshine and summer vacation were calling my overworked students' names, I asked an especially weary British literature class whether or not they believed the Romantic poets were real people at all. Their lack of enthusiasm for poetry seemed to indicate that they believed more strongly in the reality of yeti.
Most told me that they felt the likes of Keats and other Romantics were merely dead words on musty pages. I did my best to change that—but the beauty of poetry often gets lost in a pupil's upcoming chemistry exam or the rush of a basketball game. Then, as adults, we rarely go back to study poems.
That's a shame, certainly. Writing's rhythm, historical context, humor and the vibrancy of its authors' lives may seem meaningless in present-day busyness, but that's not because they are irrelevant. It's because we haven't found ways to bring them to life. Just as Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed, not plodded through in a textbook, poetry was written to be lived.
I wish, then, that I'd had access to this movie while teaching Keats. Bright Star isn't likely to be a blockbuster—it'll do well to cover its own costs—but its character, elegantly filmed scenes and well-acted story make it worthy of Keats' greatness.
"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," Keats wrote. "Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness." I don't think it crass to suggest that a modern motion picture such as this can be one of those things of beauty. And I am hopeful that more than a few people will find this perceptive, intellectual film to be a joy in an entertainment industry fraught with mindless explosions, salacious plotlines and crude dialogue.
It certainly brings Keats and his work to glorious life.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Ben Whishaw as John Keats; Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne; Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown; Kerry Fox as Mrs. Brawne; Edie Martin as Margaret 'Toots' Brawne; Thomas Sangster as Samuel Brawne
Jane Campion ( )
September 16, 2009
January 26, 2010