Bright Star is beautifully romantic—isn’t that what I’m supposed to say? Certainly I have no reservations about saying that writer-director Jane Campion’s portrait of the relationship between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne is exquisitely filmed, with restrained, finely shaded performances from Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. But romantic … I don’t know. I feel like there must have been more to John and Fanny’s relationship than Bright Star provides, and watching the movie, I kept sympathizing with the lovers’ friends and family who try to get the couple to be practical. That makes me feel like a hard-hearted clod, by the way, but even setting my android tendencies aside, something about Bright Star doesn’t sit right with me. Something is missing, no matter how elegant and delicate the film is.
From what I know, Bright Star is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the romance—passionate but chaste—between the great Romantic poet and his neighbor. (Campion leans on Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, and the screenplay quotes directly from some of Keats’s letters as well as his poems.) John and Fanny met when he was in his early twenties and she her late teens. Although Fanny’s family liked John, her mother prevented her from marrying him because he had no means of supporting himself, much less a wife and any future children. John’s friends didn’t approve of the relationship either, fearing that Fanny, whom they dismissed as a shallow flirt, only distracted him from his work. Moreover, John was perpetually in bad health and rather fatalistic about his own life expectancy, so although the pair had “an understanding,” an informal sort of engagement, they never married. John developed tuberculosis, and his friends shipped him to off to Italy in the hopes that the Mediterranean weather would save him, but it was not to be. After a few months in Rome, John Keats died believing himself a failure. He was twenty-five years old. Fanny learned of his death a few weeks later.
The specter of John’s inevitable, tragic death hangs over Bright Star, giving it a portentousness that I sometimes resented because it felt unearned. Would this on-again-off-again affair between two emotionally immature individuals have the same weight if one weren’t a genius soon to be dead before his time? I don’t mean to be cruel. I use immature not as an insult but as a description: John and Fanny both are inexperienced and naive, which has its charm, but their stagnation in that innocence frustrates me because it doesn’t ring true. Theirs was not a fleeting summer romance. John gave Fanny the love sonnet “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”—from which the movie takes its name—nearly two years before his death, so the perpetual dreamy airiness of their relationship as portrayed in Bright Star strikes me as unrealistic. Is that kind of thing really sustainable without more tension and resentment and frustration? Perhaps so, but Bright Star doesn’t make me believe it. It gives us flowers and sunbeams and summer breezes but no grit. Oh, sure, Fanny melodramatically asks for a knife when John fails to visit her in Hampstead when he is London after weeks away, but that only goes back to their immaturity. At least Romeo and Juliet have the excuse of a whirlwind romance for acting like fools.
Now that I think about it, the problem may be—and I cringe to write this—that Bright Star tells its story from Fanny’s perspective, and Fanny simply is not as interesting as John because she never seems conflicted. When John embraces their relationship, she glows; when he hints at “impossibilities,” she sobs. But she never seems to grapple with those impossibilities herself, never confronts how dire his financial straits are or how their endless courtship harms her reputation. She is a child, not a compelling heroine.
Has Campion done Fanny Brawne a disservice? We recoil instinctively from the way Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), John’s protective friend, cruelly dismisses Fanny. (His insults about her interest in fashion are particularly nasty because, as the movie frequently reminds us, Fanny designs and sews her own elaborate clothes, displaying ingenuity that might well have rivaled Brown’s poetic talent if we lived in a world that didn’t dismiss her creativity as mere feminine craft. Frankly, I wish Campion had pursued that line of thought instead of teasing with a few suggestive lines in the opening scenes and then dropping the matter.) But however cruel Brown might be, I shared his impatience. He wrongly pegs her as a faithless tease—she is nothing of the sort—but he just picked the wrong female stereotype: Bright Star’s Fanny is the girlish devotee, the true-blue helpmeet, the goddamn alabaster muse. And honestly, I would have expected more nuance and a keener edge from Campion, who did, after all, give us The Piano with Ada, one of the all-time great film heroines, who has more voice than Fanny despite having no voice at all.
I am being hard on Bright Star and maybe unfair. Campion deftly sidesteps the cliches of period drama, depicting Fanny’s narrow world with gentle subtlety, showing how loving her family is but also how claustrophobic. Fanny and John are virtually never alone; one of Fanny’s younger siblings is nearly always trailing after them as a makeshift chaperone. Even after Fanny learns of John’s death and runs outside to mourn him, reciting “Bright star” as she goes, her brother tramps along behind her like a shadow.
The cinematography is gorgeous, too, glowing with sunlight in the day and candlelight at night. In one lyrical sequence, John writes in a letter to Fanny: “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” Fanny takes up the idea and, with the help of her siblings, fills her bedroom with jars of living butterflies and then closes the window and frees them all in her room. The scene might have come across as silly, overstraining for metaphor, but Campion and her collaborators make it as lovely and eloquent as John’s own words, and when the butterflies inevitably die, the pall of their deaths is genuinely affecting as a poignant bit of foreshadowing.
Why Campion didn’t do more with that? In perhaps the most tantalizing scene, John alludes to his likely death and Fanny protests that she “has such clear hope for [his] new book,” and then they quote back and forth a few sensuous lines from one of his latest poems:
She found me roots of relish sweet
And honey wild and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
I love thee true.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
And there they break off, without ever acknowledging what they are quoting, which is maddening because the poem is, in fact, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and it will go on to suggest—however enigmatically—that this seemingly loving woman with the wild wild eyes has the speaker in her thrall and he is now lost and alone, possibly damned. It is not a lovey-dovey poem. Whishaw and Cornish might be trying to acknowledge that in their performances—they recite the lines with grave solemnity—but the screenplay doesn’t give them much to work with, so why use that poem? I’m not for a moment suggesting that Fanny is the merciless beauty of the poem—that’s far too simplistic—but I do think that the poem (at least the unabridged poem) gives the impression of conflicted feelings about infatuation and sexuality and love and death that Campion shows no interest in developing. So why tease?
I simply don’t know what to do with Bright Star—so tender and beautiful and oh so sophisticated, and yet, well, kind of shallow. Fanny is a flat, static character. John has unplumbed depths. The romance between them never catches fire for me. It’s all pretty butterflies and silly melodrama, sending the little sister on an errand to retrieve the cutlery. I wouldn’t expect the movie to live up to “Ode to a Nightingale,” which Whishaw recites over the closing credits, but Bright Star never creates a world where such an ode could exist.