The biopic is not my favorite genre, and biopics about writers, especially poets, are especially suspect. Writing is, after all, a dull profession to dramatize, and the lives of most great writers are nowhere near as interesting as their writing.
In the case of the great English poet John Keats, however, exceptions abound. He died in 1821 at the ripe young age of 25, and his poetry, from the start, was suffused with a transcendent melancholia. He had a great love, Fanny Brawne, and his letters to her are peerless. (Her letters to him do not survive.) Their love affair was like his poetry – not only romantic but Romantic.
This is how Jane Campion, the writer-director of "Bright Star," has chosen to frame the story of Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny (Abbie Cornish). And yet, while portraying their passion as an emanation of their spiritual wills, she also manages to root their lives in the mores and minutiae of early 19th-century England. For a movie so sensuously mounted, it's remarkably grounded.
Fanny and Keats – she calls him "Mr. Keats" throughout the movie – were not, at least superficially, a perfect match. Stylish, forthright, a talented seamstress, not big on poetry, she initially has disdain for the rather famished poet living next door to her family in Hampstead. Fanny's widowed mother (Kerry Fox) has large prospects for her eldest daughter, and the doting, penniless Keats does not remotely fit into them. Fanny, for a time, concurs.
All this changes when the force of his poetry, or to be more precise, the brooding, avid mind behind it, exerts its gravitational pull on her. Not even the high-style cynicism of Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats's roommate, best friend, and patron, can dampen their widening attraction. Campion indulges in some fairly prosaic ways of communicating their love – butterflies and fluttering fields of flowers predominate – but somehow nothing comes across as clichéd. I think it's because Campion herself is so caught up in the couple's ardor that those clichés turn incandescent. I wish she and her cinematographer Greig Fraser had not gone in so much for Vermeer lighting – it has the dubious effect of emblematizing one artist's life with the look of another – but here, too, one feels Campion is admirably attempting to exalt the everyday.
Some biopic clichés remain. When a character remarks that "Mr. Keats has gone to London with no coat," we know it's not long before the coughing spells will commence. (I thought Keats started coughing much too early in this film.) Whishaw certainly looks the part of a frail poetic genius, but perhaps too much so. The Keats of the letters, as well as the poetry, had more ballast, and more humor, than this will-o'-the-wisp who seems to deliquesce before our eyes. As finely as Whishaw plays him, his Keats is still essentially a stock character.
This is not the case with Cornish, whose Fanny is like nobody else I've ever seen in the movies. Prim and hardheaded, she starts out like a heroine in a Jane Austen novel but soon moves much deeper into darkness. Cornish makes altogether believable Fanny's discovery of love – her discovery of what she is capable of feeling. This discovery is startling, even a little horrifying, for her. Her wail upon hearing of Keats's death is the culmination of her ardor, and it's one of the most frightening moments in movies. It's a demonstration of how passion can pull you apart.
"Bright Star," which has a marvelous score by Mark Bradshaw, takes place during the final two years of Keats's life, and it moves inexorably to its finish. Campion hasn't quite solved the biopic problem of how to transform the step-by-step narrative of a life into drama. The film might have been better if she had been more boldly experimental, and not so resolutely chronological, in her approach. But "Bright Star" is a far cry from the usual Hollywood Great Romance. Keats and Fanny may be for the ages, but, in Campion's vision, they are also profoundly and irrevocably human. Grade: B+. Rated PG for thematic elements, some sensuality, brief language, and incidental smoking.