"Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art." That's the first line of a sonnet that John Keats did or did not write for Fanny Brawne, who was in either case the love of his brief life. Keats described her as "monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names — that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx — this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly." Was this the proper helpmate of the most famous Romantic poet of all? Critics have debated that point for the past century and a half. In Bright Star, Australian director Jane Campion weighs in with an unequivocal yes. Her film, true to its title, is about Fanny rather than Keats.
Keats and Fanny met late in 1818, when he was 23 and she 18. There was a great deal of posturing and teasing and mock-fighting between them, but it wasn't till April of 1819, when her family moved into Wentworth House (the other half of which Keats shared with his friend Charles Brown) in Hampstead, that both their love and Keats's poetry heated up. By the fall there was an understanding between them — but Keats had no income and was too poor to marry. The following February, he coughed up the notorious drop of arterial blood that signaled he had contracted tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead, in Rome, where his friends had sent him for the warmer climate.
Bright Star opens with close-ups of Fanny sewing (she was a stylish seamstress who made her own clothes) while on the soundtrack we hear the "Hampstead Heathens" vocalizing, Swingle Singers-style, the Romance from Mozart's Gran Partita (the movement that Salieri salivates over in Amadeus). What follows is a bright (almost glossy), well-bred love story that, but for the tragic ending, could be a Jane Austen novel of female empowerment. Abbie Cornish is a knowing, Bond Girl?like Fanny whose emotional commitment is never in doubt, even when she can't bring herself to gush over her beloved's every line. Ben Whishaw, channeling his fey Sebastian Flyte from the 2007 Brideshead Revisited, loiters pale and haggard as a one-dimensional Keats untouched by philosophy or politics or his experience in the surgical practice at Guy's Hospital. Paul Schneider's very Scottish-sounding Brown is the villain who keeps them apart till Keats's TB kicks in, partly because he thinks Fanny's a flirt and an airhead and partly because he wants Keats for himself. Brown is the only member of Keats's circle who has more than a cameo, though there are affecting turns from Kerry Fox as the widowed Mrs. Brawne and Thomas Sangster and a scene-stealing Edie Martin as Fanny's younger brother and sister.
"Don't suppose," Fanny wrote to Keats's sister, who was also named Fanny (and is also absent from the film), "I ever open my lips about books to men at all clever and stupid men I treat too ill to talk to at all." In other words, she wasn't an airhead. After a scene of some discreet nuzzling and hand holding on Hampstead Heath, we see Fanny lying on her bed, her window open, the wind of poetic inspiration impregnating her. It's Campion's best inspiration, if an obvious one. But Fanny deserved more than just a generic place in the heavens as a Great Lover Thwarted by Fate. Bright Star is only second-magnitude.