By Carla Ferreira
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art— / Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night [. . . .]” The opening lines of John Keats’s ethereal poem are splendid enough to make even the staunchest modernist swoon. Despite my deep-rooted allegiances to Whitman—a secret Keats fan himself—and later poets, I looked forward to viewing Bright Star, the 2009 biopic/love-story of one of the great English Romantics.
Cue the opening scene: a close-up of a needle stitching, stitching, stitching. Violins play in the background. Why are we looking so closely—and for so long—at this needle? Like much of the film, it is a scene that only makes sense later; throughout, this delay in knowledge always seems hardly worth the initial effect of awkward confusion. True to my English major sensibilities, I wrote in my notes, “Possible phallic symbol?”
But no—although let’s not rule it out altogether—it shows us sewing as fine art and craft, that of Fanny Brawne, Keats’s love interest. Fanny’s sewing serves as counterpart to Keats’s poetry writing and Jane Campion, Bright Star’s director/writer, makes sure that if the viewer understands nothing else in her film, this parallel is obvious. When Charles Brown criticizes her sewing, Fanny is quick to reply that her sewing earns her more money than the “scribblings” of him and Keats.
This retort is supposed to make us think, “Wow, Fanny is as strong-willed as she is quick-witted.” Now I believe that in literature and film, as in life, strong women are essential. But Fanny is no fierce heroine. Instead, it’s almost as though Campion were pointing at her the entire film, saying “Look, there! A strong woman!” but instead we are constantly presented with a poorly-developed character whose main pastimes appear to be pouting, languishing over Keats, and treating her younger siblings like servants. Abbie Cornish’s acting is lost on a script that makes Fanny appear like more of a petulant child than anything else.
However, at this point, you may be thinking less about Brawne and more about Brown—namely, who is this Charles Brown I mentioned earlier? Well, the film presents him in the same manner. While those more familiar with Keats might know who he is from the start, the rest of the audience will come to know him as the obnoxious friend/writing companion/occasional housemate of Keats. His continual sparring with Fanny will be the recurring distraction of the film.
Let me warn you now: if you choose to watch Bright Star because you are eager to see the love story of Brawne and Keats, you may in fact be settling down to watch the odd threesome of Brown, Brawne, and Keats.
In fact, the unexplained intensity of the hatred between Brown and Brawne gets played out almost as if there were romantic tension. But this is done so clumsily that it rather seems as though Campion toyed with the idea of Brown as a romantic competitor to Keats, so as to spice things up, but instead of committing to the concept, settles for creating awkward drama.
Case in point: midway through Bright Star, Keats angrily confronts Brown upon finding out that Fanny has received a valentine from him. Brown has no motive in sending the valentine besides annoying Fanny, but the whole ordeal gets blown up into one of the most—out of many—melodramatic scenes in the film. Brown informs Keats that Fanny “makes a religion of flirting,” and I suppose we are supposed to take this as an explanation for why Brown is so intent on harassing Fanny: he’s just trying to protect his dear friend Keats. Ah, yes, now it makes sense.
But why does it matter? Brown’s foppish behavior—painting him as an entirely one-dimensional character—receives time that could have been better spent developing Keats. Was Brown in fact a real-life impediment to the relationship between Keats and Fanny?
Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that the facts don’t matter: either m
ke Brown a compelling enough character that he’s worthy of attention or take away the time spent exploring his character and redirect it towards Fanny and Keats. Paul Schneider, bedecked in a plaid jumper, delivers a spirited performance but ultimately is incapable of injecting interest into a character so poorly written.
Keats himself, in contrast to Brown, is the most likable character, despite some attempts to cast a world-weary Rochester/grumpy Darcy aura about him. He falls neatly into the trope of “charming troubled starving poet,” complete with brooding looks and lots of moments petting a cat near a fireplace. Ben Whishaw does his best to prevent Keats from devolving into pure emo-poet by gracing the role with some humour. His endeavours are helped in no small part by his impish grin and winsome gazes: for a dying poet, he’s quite the eye candy.
I have focused so much on the characters because it is difficult to ascertain a particular plot in this film and I do not mean this in any postmodernist sense. I mean that Bright Star, throughout much of its two hour length, makes it difficult to identify what we as viewers are supposed to care about. Mostly, we are distracted by how much Brawne and Brown hate each other.
The more or less overarching conflict is that Keats cannot marry Fanny because he has no steady income. Gradually, this becomes less important to Fanny’s sainted mother. After dealing with Fanny’s attempts to turn her room into a butterfly farm and then near-suicide over Keats, Mrs. Brawne probably figures that it’s best to consent to Fanny’s wishes before the whole house becomes some kind of butterfly sanctuary. By this point, though—spoiler alert!—Keats, in the fashion of most 19th-century poets who died young, is suffering from tuberculosis. His friends decide to sponsor a trip for him to go to Italy and he dies there, away from Fanny.
When Fanny receives the news of his death, Cornish’s acting is phenomenal—she depicts Fanny’s sorrow exquisitely, embodying the raw cold reality of genuine mourning. However, the countless instances of melodrama throughout the film steal the glory that this scene could have had. I wanted to feel Fanny’s pain here, but instead of catharsis, I was feeling saturated with the constant breakdowns I had already seen.
In short, if you must watch Bright Star, take measures to keep yourself entertained, much like if you were on a long road trip. For example, upon watching the film a second time, I found it helpful to keep track of how many times Fanny’s siblings are randomly out-of-place voyeurs. Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Samuel and Edie Martin as Toots often appear to have received the instructions to stand creepily in a scene where they have no place, just staring, always there. The final scene in which Fanny recites the poem, Bright Star in the winter woods could have been a scene of delicate beauty, for once showing her love for Keats without overstating it. But Samuel was too distracting, ever present as a blur in the distance. He is just standing in the woods, watching his sister read a poem from the dead Keats. Perhaps some redemption could be found if a horror movie spinoff were made featuring these two siblings.
Until then, if you love Keats, I would recommend re-reading some of his poetry over watching Bright Star. If you don’t love Keats, I’m not sure why you are reading this review, but I would recommend not misusing any more of your time by watching this film.
Carla Ferreira is a Newark, New Jersey native with a penchant for
studying in cities called Cambridge. After four years studying English and French at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she taught English to high school students in Bordeaux, France. Her year at Trinity Hall – University of Cambridge was spent mostly writing an MPhil dissertation on Walt Whitman, Jules Laforgue, and T. S. Eliot, but was also spent in part relearning how to ride a bike, taking naps in libraries, and knitting bookmarks for her course-mates. She is currently working as a teaching assistant in Los Angeles, California and hopes to eventually publish a book of poems. In the meantime, a few of her poems can be found in literary journals such as The Lascaux Review, Off the Coast, and Shot Glass Journal.