Last night, PJ and I went out to see Jane Campion‘s new movie, Bright Star, which depicts the love story between the English poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. PJ is an admirer of her work, especially The Piano, and we’ve heard lots of Oscar buzz for this film, so we were really looking forward to seeing it. We both really liked it.

Here’s the trailer:

English professors like me and PJ know of Brawne solely as the woman Keats loved but couldn’t marry. Practically penniless, Keats couldn’t afford to marry, and within a year of their meeting in 1818 Keats began to show the early signs of tuberculosis. The entire length of their romance was less than two years, and much of it was conducted by correspondence.

The fact that few facts about their relationship are known beyond the existing letters written from Keats to Brawne (he had her letters burned at his death) poses a huge problem for the filmmaker who wants to tell their story. The temptation would be to completely fictionalize the story, veering into either melodrama or romantic comedy.

What I like most about Campion’s take on this story is that she has clearly avoided the pitfalls of modern romantic films, choosing instead to work toward cinematic realism. While there are lyrical elements to her film, she attempts to present this love story as quietly and simply as possible. She includes many of the elements contained in the letters and contemporary accounts, but she never speaks down to the audience. She shows us these characters and their story without wasting a lot of time on exposition. In doing so, she creates a very affective story, which, if not completely historically accurate, creates a pair of lovers that are believable and enthralling to watch.

Casting Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne is the first and most obvious work of genius on Campion’s part. Cornish plays Brawne as a woman transformed and matured by this tragic romance. She does an excellent job of showing us Fanny’s vanity and somewhat misguided enslavement to fashion early in the film and then slowly revealing her growing maturity and awakening as a woman.

I would think it would be tempting to depict Brawne as simply a young flirt, which is apparently how she is described by Keats’s friends, all whom believed that she was a bad entanglement that distracted the poet and contributed to his early death. Campion and Cornish show us Brawne’s flirtatiousness, but they reign it in and present her as an essentially well-meaning young woman who genuinely loves this man. They are clearly on Fanny’s side of the historical debate about her character and influence over Keats, as one would expect of a director like Campion.

The counterargument is represented solely by Keats’s friend Charles Brown, played by Paul Schneider. Brown is also a writer, and Campion depicts him as jealous of the challenge Brawne poses to his friendship with Keats and as desirous of her attentions for himself. In fact, this Brown is a creep, who takes a disliking to Brawne and then maliciously works to divide her from Keats. By the time Brown gets a servant pregnant, it is just the final piece of evidence that he is a selfish brute rather than a true friend to the dying poet.

Ben Whishaw plays Keats. He too does an excellent job, though the film is really less about him and more about Brawne. Perhaps the best part of his performance is his voice, which is excellent for reciting Keats’s poetry. His reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the final credits is worth sticking around for.

But the real star of Bright Star is Topper, the cat. He’s a black and white scene-stealer! About mid-way through the film, I became fascinated with watching Topper whenever he was on screen. My favorite part of his performance was during a scene in which Brawne has given up hope that Keats will return and is therefore giving a sad speech. Topper, meanwhile, sees a butterfly on the window and suddenly leaps up from Fanny’s lap to smack it. It’s a moment that Keats might have appreciated — the obliviousness of nature to human problems and disappointments. It’s a moment of realism that helps to ground this film.

Overall, I really liked Bright Star. The performances are excellent, and I found myself hoping that Campion had decided to rewrite history and let Keats live. It’s often difficult to enjoy a film like this when you know how it’s going to end, but Campion weaves a web of beauty and romance that makes the film worth watching. I subsequently read a short biography of Brawne. The film leaves her future rather vague. I wish it had also been more forthright about her life after Keats. But this is a very minor fault, and I highly recommend Bright Star.