Bright Star

John Keats, 1795-1821

The New Zealand-born feminist (or at least female-centric) movie director Jane Campion’s Bright Star, about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a disappointment, but only what one ought to expect. The problem is that Campion is not really interested in Keats, in his talent, in his intelligence, in the terrible pathos and tragedy of his life (one of the greatest of all poets dead at 25), in the combination of joy and pain that inspired his greatest poetry, or even, for that matter, in his love for Fanny Brawne, which in life was more ardent and tortuous than portrayed in the movie. Showing the entire story from the female’s perspective—or rather from the perspective of a female whom Campion also reduces in scale from what she was in real life—inevitably results in trivialization. Keats is portrayed as a decent fellow, but not particularly outstanding or even interesting, except for the awful sadness of his illness and death. The movie is wearisome, tiresome, and shapeless. The best moments are when his poetry is recited, and they are all too few. We are barely aware of him even writing poetry.

However, unlike other Campion movies, this one is not vicious and ugly. It doesn’t set up men as monsters. Indeed, it’s all about a young woman who loves and admires a man. Shocking! And the man is shown as a good man, a sympathetic figure. Again, shocking.

The movie will be worth seeing if it gets you to read Keats’s poetry, especially his poems from between January and September 1819, when, tormented by his love for Fanny whom he could not marry because of his poverty, and feeling death closing in on him, he wrote one masterpiece after another, in an “intense flowering of talent [that] remains unparalleled in literary history,” and thereafter his poetical production stopped because of illness.

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September 21

LA writes:

And to give you an idea of the dullness of the movie, that period of intense flowering is never referred to in the movie; the viewer would have no way of knowing that it even happened.

LA writes:

The New York Times’ nihilist movie reviewer, A.O. Scott, surprisingly likes the movie, and a major part of his liking it seems to be that he can’t get over the novelty that the movie show two young people in love who don’t go to bed together.

Howard Sutherland writes:

My wife and I went to see Bright Star this weekend. It was a reasonable evocation of the period but slow-paced and, as you note, really tells us very little about Keats. After a while, though, I realized that Campion has told us what her movie is about in the title. It’s not really about Keats at all. What it is about makes it easier to understand why Campion, ardent feminista, made it. It’s about Fanny Brawne and her emotional states—and, not least, how oblivious to them men (with the exception, at times, of Keats himself) are. At least in Campion’s presentation; who knows what the truth of that was?

Fanny Brawne is a sympathetic young woman and, thanks to her love for Keats in his sad circumstances, a tragic figure. Her story is not, alone, enough to hang a feature-length movie on, however. If Campion had been willing to broaden her scope, tell us more about Keats’s life (there is only one, passing, reference to his being a doctor, for example, and nothing about his origins) and development as a poet, and explore Keats’s extraordinary circle of poetic friends who supported him, both he and Fanny would have been stronger, more interesting characters, and Campion might have directed a masterpiece. But, as I said, Bright Star isn’t about Keats or any other men, it is about women, specifically his bright star, Fanny Brawne. HRS

LA replies:

But she’s not that bright. She’s a bit dull. But you’ve captured it. When you reduce everything to women’s emotional states, without the larger world—which includes the male world—of which those emotional states are a part, you’re left with triviality. A world boiled down to the female perspective and nothing else is not interesting (except in the all-female 1939 movie The Women, which is very good).

Howard Sutherland replies:

I guess The Women is the exception that proves the rule—it’s a masterpiece in its way. Also one of my wife’s all-time favorite movies.

As for Keats’s bright star, I’m not sure Campion has shown us Fanny Brawne as she really was. Certainly I found her portrayal of Keats suspect. Part of it is accents. In my lifetime English speech has decayed—become more “naff,” to use the local expression. As a result, when I watch British costume dramas with aristocratic or at least well-bred characters, it is depressingly amusing to hear the actors playing them speaking in accents that as recently as the 1970s would have been ridiculed as low-class. Whether this is the result of ignorance or deliberate class-warfare leveling on the parts of producers, directors and actors, I cannot say. Given the hard-left milieu that is the British theatre world, I think the latter is entirely possible.

Howard Sutherland continues:
According to his poem, though, Keats loved Fanny first of all for her steadfastness. So for him, at least about Fanny, excitement wasn’t her particular brightness that drew him to her, but rather a steadiness that was such a contrast to Keats’s own precarious existence. If so, however, Campion’s Fanny doesn’t seem quite steady enough, although she is faithful even in hopeless circumstances. And that’s probably enough. HRS

LA replies:

The poem, “Bright Star,” is ambiguous. The bright star in the poem does not seem to be the woman, but the poet himself:

Bright star! would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

It’s the poet who wants to be as steadfast as the bright star in the sky, except that while the star watches steadfastly over the whole world, the poet wants to be steadfast in watching over his sleeping love. It is this stillness, happiness, and peace that, as Mr. Sutherland points out, represents such a contrast to the poet’s own precarious existence. On a first reading, it can strike the reader as too limited, for the poet to want nothing more than to stay there forever, resting on his love’s softly breathing breast. But when we remember the troubles surrounding Keats, and the death that was fast approaching him, the desire makes complete sense. This is all the peace and happiness he can hope for. As long as he has this (or has it in imagination) he is a bright star.

I’m not sure that that reading is entirely satisfactory, but I don’t know how else to see it.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 20, 2009 09:17 PM | Send

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