I fell in love with Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 film about first love and first death, the first time I saw it. It was exactly a week before my son was born.
John Keats was a Romantic poet who died young. He fell in love with an even younger Fanny Brawne. Campion’s film focuses on this love story, roughly the last three years of Keats’s life, when, not accidentally, he wrote some of his most famous poems.
Campion doesn’t do conventional biopics or heritage cinema. Her characters spill tea. The Hampstead streets where Keats and Fanny fall in love are full of mud. We hear about but never meet Mr. Coleridge. A field of daffodils, in an allusion to Wordsworth’s roughly contemporary poem, are not dancing but wilting.
Fanny, played by Abbie Cornish, is Keats’s muse not because she is easy to objectify but because she is an artist too, one unafraid to criticise his poetry and make fun of his tendency to be serious. Images of Fanny
Brawne begin and end the film. She spends most of the film stitching. Choosing fabric. Combining colours. Recycling old material. Cutting and snipping things into shape. Making others look their best. The dressmaker as proto-filmmaker. A filmmaker like Campion.
Keats falls in love with Fanny through a series of hand-made and hand-delivered gifts. In one of my favourite scenes, Keats’s poet friend warns the Brawne family to leave the two men alone when they are “musing.” Fanny dismisses his elevated talk from the sidelines, emphasising the equal importance of amusement to life.
Campion employs these stereotypes of gendered behaviour to subvert them. The gap between amusement and muse is paper-thin, like the wall between Keats and Fanny’s bedroom.
Bright Star is about the attachments that make us human, even when we know, as Keats and Fanny know, that he is dying. “Is this love?” Fanny asks, prostrate on her bed when Keats briefly breaks off their relationship. Bright Star is a film about love in all its guises, including Jane Campion’s love for both poets and muses. Indeed, Fanny is as much the bright star of the film as Keats, as much an artist as he is.
Jonathan Ellis is Reader in American Literature at Sheffield University, UK. He is the author of Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014) and editor of Letter Writing Among Poets: From Wordsworth to Bishop (2015). Forthcoming books include Reading Elizabeth Bishop: An Edinburgh Companion (2019), Elizabeth Bishop in Context (2021) and Letters: A Very Short Introduction (2021). Jonathan writes for various film and literary journals, including Another Gaze, Film Quarterly, The Tangerine, The Letters Page and the TLS.