Another in an occasional series.
Like The Invisible Woman and Hemingway and Gellhorn, Bright Star is about a real writer — this time, John Keats. The movie covers the last three years of Keats’s life, focusing on his relationship with Fanny Brawne.
Unlike Dickens and Hemingway, Keats was not a jerk. He is, in fact, just about the most lovable great writer I know of. This is, of course, problematic in a movie. Here is what the director, Jane Campion, had to deal with:
- All Keats’s friends loved him.
- His relationship with Fanny Brawne was chaste and “appropriate”. Fanny’s family loved him as much as his friends did.
- At the end of the movie he’s gonna die, and we all know it. (He dies because he catches TB taking care of his beloved brother.)
So you have a sort of tragedy — the romance is doomed, and Keats is doomed to think that he will die a failure. But that’s just sad; it’s not dramatic. Where do you find your conflict? Campion finds a little between Fanny and Keats’s roommate, but that’s about it. For the most part, watching this movie is like watching very elegant paint dry. It’s well acted; the costumes are great; but there’s just not that much going on.
There’s a little bit in the movie about writing: we see Keats and Charles Brown, his roommate, sitting around during the day trying to find stuff to write about. And then there’s the famous scene of Keats sitting in Brown’s yard one morning writing “Ode to a Nightingale”:
According to Keats’ friend Brown, Keats finished the Ode in just one morning: “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of the nightingale.”
But really, there’s not much you can do to dramatize that. This is the essential problem with writers in movies: a young guy sits in a chair, listens to some birds, and scribbles out an immortal masterpiece. It just isn’t very cinematic.
Anyway, let’s all enjoy Bright Star:
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.