“A Poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence because he has no Identity,” wrote John Keats in an 1818 letter to a friend. This certainly seems to be the case in Jane Campion’s Bright Star, based on the real-life romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne—only, in the film’s case, this particular axiom is true not only of poets but of most of the characters in the film, poets or no.
This line itself is borrowed for the film’s dialogue and inserted into a conversation in which Keats tries, rather unsuccessfully, to teach Fanny about the art of poetry. Fanny seems to have little interest in poetry itself, but it’s also unclear why she should be interested in the poet. Nor is it clear why Keats should be attracted to her, since her character remains a cipher throughout the film. We first see her stitching an elaborate ruffle that ends up as a rather ugly adornment on her own dress, and we’re told that she is a talented seamstress. She announces proudly, when Keats’s friend and fellow poet Mr. Brown mocks her apparel, that she can make a living off her sewing, but we never see evidence of this. We’re told many things about her, but none of these speeches add up to a convincing character.
Part of the difficulty could be that Campion relies so extensively on Keats’s letters to create his dialogue (which is a problem in its own right, since it makes a crazy-quilt of a script with perfectly polished lines that don’t make much sense in their new context), and none of Fanny Brawne’s letters to Keats have survived, thus leaving Campion little material to work with to create her character. Letters about Fanny Brawne exchanged by Keats and other contemporaries definitely give the impression that she was something of a shallow flirt. (Keats writes to Fanny, less than a year before his death from tuberculosis at age twenty-five, “Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen. You may have altered – if you have not – if you still behave in dancing rooms and other societies as I have seen you – I do not want to live – if you have done so I wish this coming night may be my last. I cannot live without you, and not only you but chaste you; virtuous you.” This is a Keats it might have been more interesting to see portrayed in the film: the manipulative, whiny, paranoid Keats.)
Campion, as an explicitly feminist filmmaker, has chosen to tell the story through Fanny’s perspective, a choice which could work very well indeed. But here it doesn’t, perhaps because Campion has tried to stay too true to the little we know about Fanny. In a heated conversation between Keats and Mr. Brown (in which Keats, as usual, utters lines from letters to other people), the two men discuss Fanny’s flirtatiousness in front of her face. She remains silent. This could be a powerful moment showing how impossible it would be for her, as a woman in the early 19th century, to defend herself to two men who have already made up their minds about her character—that is, it could be a powerful moment if we, as an audience, really had a clear portrait of Fanny ourselves. This is what Campion, as writer, needs to provide. So what if we don’t have any of Fanny Brawne’s letters? Make something up to fill in the gaps. It’s what writers do.
Much has been made of Abbie Cornish’s acting in the role of Fanny, and there has even been speculation about an Oscar nomination. I’m not sure what to say, other than that she cries well. We know so little of her interior life—and the small bits we do see seem more like clichés of young love, alternately mopey and ecstatic, than a portrayal of a full-fledged individual. This, again, seems to me more a flaw of the directing and writing than of the acting. The only previous Campion film I’ve seen was The Piano, one of the few films I wish I could permanently delete from my brain. I suppose it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment to Bright Star that at least it didn’t make me want to gouge out my eyeballs.
In fact, Bright Star is quite a pretty film, and I think Campion may be trying to translate Keats’s poetry into a visual medium. I wish, however, that this task had been attempted by an artist with a better ear. In interviews, Campion has admitted her own initial difficulty with poetry: she, like Fanny Brawne in the film, originally “approached verse as a puzzle to be cracked.” The love story, she says, is what gave her an entry point into Keats’s poetry. Fanny may be Campion’s stand-in in this regard, but, in the film, she quickly drops all interest in understanding or appreciating poetry, once her romance seems assured. I, as someone who is generally more interested in poetry than in love stories, would be curious to see what the film would have looked like in another, more poetry-attuned, writer-director’s hands. I’m all for making poetry accessible to a broader audience, but Bright Star makes it seem merely the property of two rather silly people who are infatuated with each other. Isn’t that how many people already think of poetry?
Because Campion’s film is so tied up in romance, it misses the true power and danger of Romantic poetry. In the “unpoetical Poet” passage from Keats’s letter, in context, he’s actually discussing the poet’s lack of identity as something that distinguishes him from average people with their stable little selves: the poet “has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet.” Campion is so intent upon portraying John Keats’ and Fanny Brawne’s relationship as “innocent” and “pure”—based, as far as I can tell, solely on the fact that they didn’t have sex, which may have been due more to Keats’s tubercular lungs than to moral scruples—that she completely misses the egotistical side of Romanticism. I would have loved to see a film that explored the effect of Romantic egotism in a poet who didn’t live quite as flashily as, say, Byron or Shelley. Such a film would essentially be an exploration of sins of the mind, and I would find it far more interesting than a film that thinks Romantic poetry is about flowers, birds, and “pure” love.