Campion’s Film of and from Keats
By Stanley Plumly on 10.22.09
In his February-May 1819 journal-letter to his brother George, the nineteenth-century English Romantic poet John Keats remarks that “they are very shallow people who take every thing literal. A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life—a life the like scriptures, figurative—.” To her great credit, filmmaker Jane Campion has understood the richly figurative in Keats’ life without sacrificing the literal wealth of its texture. She has evoked the mystery of his genius without giving up the reality of its dailiness. Bright Star, her new film about the almost two-year passion between Keats and Fanny Brawne, is brilliant in its discipline and detail, in what it permits to enter their story and what it excuses from exposition. Campion is as gifted a writer as she is director, and her screenplay is masterful in its extrapolation of the implicit narrative in Keats’ remarkable letters, particularly since what we see on the screen is entirely from Fanny’s point of view: her experience of and with Keats as reflected in his words.
Understated, in that in the film it runs just below the surface of the growing love between these two young people, is the fact of Keats’s poetry itself, an issue difficult enough to deal with in biography let alone a movie. Indeed, Keats’s relationship with Fanny releases his best and now immortal work, ranging from “The Eve of St Agnes,” “Lamia,” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” to the magnificent Odes and “The Fall of Hyperion,” and including any number of beautiful sonnets, among them “Bright Star.” Fanny becomes not only an inspiration but, for Keats, the signature of life itself, since, from the first realization of their feelings for each other, Keats knows he is not well. Love, the poems, and Keats’s poorly diagnosed yet terminal illness all move in parallel, though in Campion’s film it is love—made brighter by the intensity of mortality—that defines her subject. But even passion here is understated, as it must have been in real life—given the conventions—for these two intense individuals. The much-reviewed scene in which the would-be lovers, in a bedroom, are speaking back and forth lines from Keats’s newly composed ballad “La Belle Dame…” surely qualifies as flesh-made-word love-making. The scene gorgeously represents what poetry as well as love are about—the spiritual inseparable from the carnal.
At the time, Keats’s positive reputation as a poet was limited to his friends, while his standing with his critics was less than zero. After his death in Rome, in 1821, at age twenty-five, the popular opinion was that he had been killed by his critics, “snuffed out by an article,” as Byron puts it. Or, as the words on his famous gravestone put it: “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of His Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone ‘HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.’ ” To Shelley, in his pastoral elegy “Adonais,” Keats had become “Like a pale flower by some maiden cherished,” a flower unable to withstand, because of his physical and psychological condition, the cold harsh winds of criticism. None of these indelible romantic clichés, of course, is true.
John Keats’s Tombstone, Rome, Italy. Photo by Widening Gyre 94 on Flickr
What killed Keats was tuberculosis and the state of the medical attention he was heir to. Nevertheless, Fanny, the cherishing “sad maiden,” some while after his death and still keenly aware of the pain of Keats’s last days in England, thought it kinder “to let him rest for ever in the obscurity to which unhappy circumstances have condemned him.” And it looked for a while that Keats’s own summation of the non-future of his name—“writ in water”—would be realized. Campion’s film, by the nature of the story it is telling, has little interest in or purchase on the question of Keats’s posthumous reputation. His potential immortality serves only as a framing context for the smaller immediate drama. Campion’s focus is the heart and feel of this true and tragic love story.
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Keats places his very mortal hand against his bedroom wall, knowing that Fanny, on the other side of the separation, is placing her hand, like a rhyme, against his. So much of the power of the Keats-Brawne love story finds its source in the near-yet-far fact that they are direct neighbors, sharing what is now ironically known as the Keats House. In 1818-19, it was a double-house owned by Charles Dilke and Charles Brown, both friends of Keats. When the two men built the house it was one of the first full-time residences in the London suburb of Hampstead, which up until the early nineteenth century tended to be scattered small farms or summer property. Dilke has moved back to London to be near his son in school and has rented his half to the widow Mrs. Brawne and her three children, the oldest of whom, at eighteen, is Fanny. Keats has moved in with Brown on the verso side of the house following the December death of his brother Tom. Everything flows from the accident of this intimate yet limiting domestic arrangement.
In profound ways, Charles Brown, Keats’s closest friend, sometime collaborator, and on-going benefactor, is not only the complicating third in the love story, he is its dark energy. Brown and Fanny—also neighbors—have a sexually charged and antagonistic relationship. When it comes to Keats, Fanny thinks Brown is a possessive, controlling presence; Brown thinks Fanny an undereducated fashion flirt. The careful pacing of the film means to delineate the weight (and counterweight) of each of the characters in this triangle while establishing their dependence on one another. Poetry is only one of the arts practiced in the film; sewing, the making of clothes—which is Fanny’s forte—is the other. Campion chooses not to mention that Fanny is a relative of Beau Brummell, the Regency fashion leader; nor does she allude to Keats’s extensive medical training. Both of these backstories necessarily disappear from the focus. Brown’s heavy Scot self, however, as things develop, does not disappear but emerges to dominate the film—and the Keats story generally—as the flawed, haunted figure. The scene in which he admits to Fanny his betrayal of Keats by not traveling to Rome with and caring for his friend in his last hours is easily as riveting as the scene of Fanny’s final breakdown at the news of Keats’s death. As in classical tragedy, someone must be the bearer of the bad news and Brown becomes the messenger: his later admission of his failure regarding Keats becomes his recognition scene.
Keats, above all his contemporaries, is our contemporary. He has become and continues to be the most compelling of the Romantics. His short life, as moving a story as it is, might well have become the pulp of sentimental myth. He himself rescues his story: his “Letters” are perhaps the most interesting and beautiful ever written, while a strong selection of his poems makes him into one of the greatest of poets, whose elevation of the lyric form into tragic and sublime status has had lasting influence. Campion’s film of and from Keats is Fanny’s Keats. Fanny’s intelligence and passion guide us at every turn. We see what she sees, know what she knows, feel what she feels. Brown, at the end, accepts that she alone is the one he must confess to.
A scene from Bright Star.
Editor’s Note: Stanley Plumly is the author of Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography. It will be available in paperback on November 9, 2009.