The most lovely film I've seen so far this fall--which very much deserves to be seen on the big screen--is "Bright Star." (10) Australian director Jane Campion (best known for "The Piano") has written and directed this ode to John Keats and the young woman who inspired and loved him in the last couple of years of his short life before he died of consumption at the age of 25. I've admired Keats's poetry since my own youth, but it took a woman in her 50s to help me actually envision what his genius might have looked like and to begin to understand it and even to believe in it.
A tall order, with me as her audience, because the story involves young love, generally a tough sell for me. No offense to my young readers, but romances, particularly those about youthful lovers, generally inspire eye rolls from me. Most romances are totally unbelievable, written with no real insight about what actual love looks like (see, e.g., "500 Days of Summer"), and the emotional excesses of young screen lovers tend to annoy me even more. Keats's story involves his love for a young woman whom he met when she was 19 and her family moved into the house where he was also a boarder. Much flirting (all very restrained, since this is England in the Regency-era) and swoony romance ensues.
Yet this film could not be more lovely, or, in its way, more believable. Campion's cast helps. Ben Winshaw is a compelling and utterly convincing Keats--tragic, a little frail, yet with a grave intensity that infuses his lush poetry with a surprising sincerity. Abby Cornish is miraculous as his love, Fanny--bright, petulant, determined. A charming young woman who designs her own clothes, quite edgy for their day, and who seems quite comfortable with the fashionable balls and coquetry that are expected of her as a young woman of marriageable age, she seems an unlikely match for Keats. One senses that she pursues him at first to spite his roommate and friend, a boorish Scotsman named Brown who is himself an aspiring poet and who mercilessly teases Fanny for her frivolous pursuits and disdains her as a person of no conceivable substance.
Brown is the toughest role in the film, and Paul Schneider (brilliant in "Lars and the Real Girl" and becoming one of my favorite actors) displays amazing range here. His place in the film confused me at first, but I eventually concluded that he grounds a story that might otherwise have floated away. Brown treats Fanny and her artistry as ridiculous and silly, far beneath the heights which a poet dares to scale. As Fanny and Keats begin to form an alliance, he warns Keats against her feminine wiles and finds it inconceivable that she would be a fitting match for him. He fancies himself Keats's equal, if not in talent at least in substance, warning Fanny and her family not to disturb them when they are thinking great thoughts.
Fanny's sharp tongue is quick with retorts to Brown's barbs, and one admires her spunk and wit--but truthfully, it's not at all clear in the beginning that Brown is wrong about Fanny. Yet as the story unfolds, it seems as though Keats awakens something in her. She understands beauty, and responds to Keats' depths with depths of her own. One senses that her interest in fashion might well be how a heart for loveliness might find expression in a young woman in Regency England. Before long, it is Brown whose essential callowness is revealed.
The look of the film befits its subject. Fanny's fashions are arresting, the colors sensual, and the cinematography at times caught my breath, particularly with close up shots of bits of embroidery or small touches and looks between the lovers. Keats climbs a tree rich with blossoms and rests in its branches; Fanny gulps a longed-for letter sitting in a meadow awash with blue flowers. The film's lushness evokes how colors appear to be more intense when one is deeply in love.
Fanny's family, too, is so dear. She has two younger siblings who shyly adore Keats and tenderly look after Fanny (the younger sister, Toots, with her red curly locks and rosy cheeks, looks as though she just stepped out of a painting by Fra Angelico). And rarely has maternal love been portrayed more sensitively than in Fanny's scenes with her mother, who justifiably worries for her (due to the unyielding social conventions of the time, a marriage between Fanny and the penniless Keats was quite out of the question) and yet responds to the progression of events with steadfastness and practical generosity of spirit.
All of this, finally, brings Keats' poetry to vivid life. Never have those words sunk so deep into my soul--until, in the closing credits, the sound of Ben Winshaw's voice reciting "Ode to a Nightingale" left me quite undone. Ah, bright star. Would I were as steadfast as thou art.