John Keats. I read several biographies of him in my teens; I read piles of his poetry. Back then I was reading piles of poetry by all the Romantics, and Keats was not my favourite. My love was for Shelley; Shelley admired Keats, but Keats didn't reciprocate the friendship. I liked Keats, but he seemed passive and bloodless compared to Shelley's manic social theories, Byron's outrageous histrionics, or Robert Browning's smooth storytelling. The sad story of John Keats - 'unrecognized brilliance, lived poor, lost his love and died young' - perhaps resembled my sense of myself too much: sickly, struggling with life, love, and creativity. If I wanted to read about dying tragically in Italy, I'd choose Elizabeth Browning, whose story is more romantic. I admired Keats, but didn't ever love him.
This didn't stop me from making a pilgrimage to his grave when I was in Rome.
Still: a movie about a Romantic poet, and set in 1818 - how could I resist? Well, auriaephiala
said it was sad. So I didn't get around to it for a few years.
But then I saw Skyfall
, and fall in love with everyone in the movie, including Ben Whishaw, who plays Keats in Bright Star
, and suddenly the movie rose to the top of my list.
Had I known the director was Jane Campion, I might still have resisted seeing it. The Piano
is one of my least favourite movies ever. When I watched the extras on the Bright Star
DVD, I saw that Jane Campion talked about wanting to show the passion of the characters and their story.
Problem is, I don't see much passion here. It seems to me to be the Dreaded Doom of some historical movies: emulate the speech patterns of the time, make everyone a little bit mannered, put in a lot of long silences and ambiguous glances. Boring before it starts. Fleshless.
Or maybe I'm just allergic to Campion's style. I know Whishaw can act brilliantly; I've seen it. I saw it in Skyfall
, where in a few brief scenes he shows more personality than in the whole of Bright Star
. I didn't see the depths in Keats that I wanted to see, or the strength of his love for Fannny. Nor did I find Abbie Cornish very interesting as Fanny Brawne - and I'm pretty sure that Jane Campion was not trying to say that Fanny was a dull person. In fact, the only character I really liked was Mr. Brown, played by Paul Schneider. He seemed real to me, and three dimensional. No one else did.
And Brown's love for Keats seemed more sad, more selfless, more hopeless, and more heroic to me than Fanny's. He broke my heart when he said, "I failed John Keats. I did not know until now how tightly he wound himself around my heart." The only problem with him was his ugly plaid trousers.
...And yes, that was another problem. In lieu of strong story and gripping emotions, I wanted to enjoy my favourite period for costume and style. Sadly, I thought Janet Patterson botched it. The point is made that Fanny Brawne designed her own clothes: the character and the designer between them managed to make clothes of my favourite period look ugly to my eye. Fussy where they should have been simple, multipatterned when they should have been plain.
I didn't think it even did much justice to Keat's poetry. The poems, of course, speak for themselves. But the readings were somewhat monotone, read in lowered voices which substituted timing for intonation. Uninspired, regardless of who was reading them.
I'm not sorry I watched it. Actually, I watched it twice. The second time confirmed my first impressions. I loved the cat; and Fanny's little sister; and I'm getting close to the point where I'd watch Ben Whishaw in anything. But this wasn't the movie I wanted it to be.