In her new film, Bright Star, Jane Campion tells the true story of the intensely passionate, yet restrained, love affair that developed between the young Romantic poet John Keats and fashion student Fanny Brawne, who literally was, while Keats lived in a house next to her in Hampstead, “the girl next door.”
There was nothing ordinary or commonplace about this relationship however. The affair sparked a prolific period of creativity for the poet, during which Keats wrote some of his most inspired and celebrated works, including the sonnet ‘Bright Star,’ before his untimely death at the age of 25.
Opposites often attract. His first impressions were that she was something of a vacuous fashion student, a “minx.” She comments that poetry is “something of a strain to work out.” Despite these differences, Brawne (Abbie Cornish) finds him beguiling enough to persevere with puzzling over rhyming couplets, while Keats (Ben Whishaw) gradually begins to perceive that there is wit, strength and a tender heart beneath the external frill and fluff of her self-styled bodice creations.
There are genuine obstacles in the pair’s path, hindering the chance of their love developing organically. Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’ best friend, jealously attempts to destroy the relationship through control and manipulation, while Brawne’s mother (Kerry Fox) rubbishes her feelings and acts as a symbolic reminder of societal pressures and expectations, telling her that Keats knows he cannot love her “for he has no living and no income.”
These obstacles become irrelevant of course, not least to the audience who become fully embroiled in the burgeoning love affair between the two. What could teeter over into a trite and tedious experience, watching a doomed and naïve couple gaze longingly at each other, is saved by the actors’ brilliant portrayal of the madness of first love. This we experience predominantly through the eyes of Fanny – Cornish excellently shows the extent to which our emotions are at the mercy of our beloved – oscillating between joy and anguish, hate and love, entrapping butterflies in her room as though it were a perfectly rational pastime, much to the irritation of her mother. Love not only makes us bonkers, it dissolves our sense of time, sensually reflected in beautiful, long and meditative scenes of billowing curtains and metre-high grass.
Time never stands still though and the seasons, which also play a sumptuous role in the film, continually change. In the famous poem, Keats wrote “Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou art”, expressing his desire to be “unchangeable”, to live forever in the moment and the madness, beside his love – “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, And so live ever, or else swoon to death.” Inevitably, it is death, which becomes the lovers’ insurmountable obstacle.