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True romance

Jane Campion directs the best movie ever made about John Keats.
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 23, 2009

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Review: Bright Star. By Jeffrey Gantz.
Bright Star is the best movie ever made about John Keats, the great Romantic poet who died at the age of 25. According to the Internet Movie Database, however, it is also the only one.

"Really?" says Jane Campion, who has addressed equally tough topics in Sweetie (1989), An Angel at My Table (1990), and The Piano (1993). "Someone told me that there had been another one. But then again, there aren't many films about any poets at all. Except maybe Coleridge in Pandæmonium (2000)."

Perhaps that's because the subjective experience of writing poetry does not readily lend itself to the objective medium of film. Also, Bright Star's love story between Keats and Fanny Brawne never progresses much beyond the hand-holding stage, which could be a hard sell in this age of graphic sex on screen.

Campion herself had doubts about the project. "I thought, 'This has to be the worst idea for a movie.' But I was drawn to the love story. And I didn't think it would be a problem making it work on screen, even though it wasn't consummated. When a love affair is consummated in the first 10 minutes of a film, all the tension is lost. I find the anticipation more erotic. And as for showing the writing process, that's partly why I chose to tell the story from the point of view of Fanny. She, like me, was trying to learn about poetry and how it was written. So she serves as a way to enter that process."

Campion first encountered Keats's poetry when she was 18 ? about the same age Brawne was when she met the poet. "I had this ridiculous professor who thought there were many different interpretations of a poem. I was fascistic and thought there was only one. That it was a puzzle to be cracked. Later, I learned that the experience of immersing oneself in beauty without the need for final answers was more rewarding."

She came to that conclusion while doing research for the poetically inclined heroine of her previous film, the unfairly maligned thriller In the Cut (2003). Campion was reading Andrew Motion's 1999 biography of Keats, and she was moved not only by the tragedy of his life and love but also by Keats's concept of "Negative Capability." "That was the notion we fell back on whenever we got stuck. The ability to be 'in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.' "

The result is a film that largely eschews bio-pic closure and conventions. Even so, Campion's "worst idea" has received overwhelmingly favorable reviews. Including one from an unlikely source -- Quentin Tarantino.

Campion laughs. "That was a highlight of my life. He said it was his favorite picture of mine. And I think he's one of the greatest filmmakers around -- he has at least 11 different shades of irony. I loved Inglourious Basterds, though I did have to cover my eyes at the scalping scenes."

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