And then there’s this madness: Even movies that are about the women who love great men almost always end up being about the men anyway. I suppose that’s the point of telling the story of such women in the first place: they’re only worth talking about because the great men turned their gaze upon them for a time.
But not this movie. Not Bright Star. John Keats is the intruder into the story of Fanny Brawne, and if you didn’t already know that he turned out to be the renowed poet and she turned out to be “merely” the young woman who loved him, and was loved by him, and inspired some of his greatest poetry, you might be forgiven for assuming that she’s the one who surely washed up legendary years later, for how the film defies the convention of lavishing its focus not on him as the de facto presumptive natural center of attention, but on her.
The beautiful thing about that is that — as with all expressions of honest feminism — it ends up being as good for him as it does for her. Because screenwriter and director Jane Campion (In the Cut) has made her Fanny a true bright star for her John to orbit, has brought to breathtakingly lovely life not only the facts of their relationship but the spirit of the poetry that it inspired, and that made the poet the towering figure he is in our minds today. (The poem the film is named for is his ode to Fanny.) I’ve never actually been much of a fan of the Romantic poets, but everything I’ve ever been told about why they’re important and what their words say positively radiates off the screen: the impossibility of separating ourselves from nature, the importance of appreciating the experience of living, the pleasure we take in beauty being its own kind of beauty.
It’s there in the knowing dreaminess of Ben Whishaw’s (The International, Brideshead Revisited) John, who is moody and melancholy as he mopes around the rambling Hampstead houses and fields and woods that the film moves through, locations of expansive wistfulness perfectly suited to a poor poet who thinks of little but words and love and nesting in trees of an afternoon. It’s there in the steely certainty of Abbie Cornish’s (Stop-Loss, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) Fanny, as modern a girl as they come even today: 18 years old, consumed with fashion and creative about it (she makes all her own clothes, wonderful inventions that, you might have thought, were the reason she became famous, were you to suppose that she had), and positive that a poor poet is the man for her, even should he not be in a position to marry.
Marriage is the only option for a respectable, well-brought-up girl like Fanny, for it is 1818, and that’s just how things are. But these are not people who are living in a corseted theme-park version of the past: this is their real world, and the way things are is simply the way things are. They are modern people, as all people always are in their own times but as few films set in historical eras manage to capture. (It’s very much like Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice in that regard.) They don’t wear costumes but clothes — John, especially, is so wonderfully unkempt half the time that he’s entirely the 1818 equivalent of a dude lounging around in old jeans and a torn T-shirt. And their feelings are shown to us by Campion in such a way as to almost make you gasp with recognition for their straightforward authenticity: as Fanny takes to moping over the impossibility of her love for John, she isn’t much unlike teenagers today. When Fanny’s little sister, Toots (the whip-snarky Edie Martin), announces to their mother (Kerry Fox) that “Fanny wants a knife… to kill herself…” well, there’s gentle humor in it — it’s all lovestruck exaggeration — but also an almost literally pointed reminder that, you know, heartbreak wasn’t invented by Elvis Presley.
There’s palpable anguish onscreen here, all around. Earlier, it’s in John’s bewilderment at finding himself in love with one such as Fanny, all brash daring and foolish (or so he deems it) frippery: he doesn’t know what to make of women at all, he acknowledges, and doesn’t know why he’s attracted to her. (Ah, that loveliest and most infuriating conundrum: why are we attracted to this person and not to that person?) It’s in Fanny’s wallowing in the wonderful misery of being in love. It’s in John’s best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown, a bulldog presence who resents Fanny’s intrusion into the relationship of two men. (Paul Schneider [Lars and the Real Girl, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford] as Brown is almost terrifyingly aggressive, though often amusingly so, too, as if Brown were as big a mystery to himself as he is to John and Fanny; Schneider is a just-right mirror image to Whishaw’s delicate passion and brooding consideredness.) It’s there later, when Fanny learns that she and John will never be together again, in a grief so powerful it stunned me into sharing it.
All of the zeal of the Romantics and everything that concerned them is here in the cosy domesticity of Fanny’s home and family and in how Campion presents it to us: the cat that’s always underfoot, even when it’s not wanted; the collection of butterflies gathered by Fanny and Toots that, in perhaps the film’s most simply beautiful sequence, flitter about Fanny’s bedroom. It’s there in the ardor between Fanny and John, which, for all its chasteness, burns burns burns; Whishaw and Cornish smolder together in a way that we don’t often see onscreen because their characters can never quite give in to their desire for each other.
It’s not only the best possible ode to Keats’ work, this lovely gentle poetic film, it’s the best possible ode to Fanny, as well: If she made him feel the way this movie feels, that must have been a powerful love indeed.