‘Bright Star': Keats the heart-throb and the ‘tender-taken breath’

Agh, it’s impossible to get anything done today – there will be announcements of three new Saturday workshops coming up, and I can give you the dates now: Dec 15th (2nd annual Writing Christmas workshop), Jan 12th (techniques gleaned from the TS Eliot-shortlisted books) and Jan 26th (Poem as a Question: learning from Keats).

But first, Keats – he’s where we come in here, because last night I finally saw that film, ‘Bright Star’. It pretty much stripped me to a husk, and one way it did that was by accessing the story (creating the ‘story’-as-artefact of Fanny Brawne) via pure anima: it’s raw emotion, the emotion of a young girl. Keats gets his emotions too, God knows, but they are as seen by Fanny.

This point of view is emphasised in the scene where they first kiss, in a glade, and something rather radical happens: instead of being behind his head, lingering on her lips coming in, the camera stays behind her, and it’s his mouth we’re seeing. It’s the girl’s-eye view of the kiss. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before and it taught me something right there, even at my advanced age, about the Male Gaze. So this is where the rest of the huskness comes in, because even while the film was flaying my feelings, it was making me think.

Fecking knackering.

Now, we know what Jane Campion is about, at least every one of her films I’ve ever seen has been about: the woman’s point of view. It’s a story thing, but it’s also a very visual, and internal, and also world thing – as in, women in the past occupied a different world. (Bits of this world remain, which gives these films resonance.)

But the story. There are no grown men in this film except Keats (whose slightly fey looks, via Ben Whishaw, give the lie to the real Keats – stocky, short, a bit pugnacious – and quite possibly less prettily spoken than in the film, though we don’t know) and Charles Brown, his friend, who is portrayed as a sort of bullying misogynist boor. The atmosphere is all of homely comfort, the mechanics of the household as carried out by women, and the eyes of the children. There are fields of flowers, there are diaphanous fabrics, there is sewing aplenty, there is colour. (You can see Fanny’s room, above; the men’s rooms are dark, wooden, serious.)

Fanny’s little sister, Toots (real name in life, Margaret), has a very interesting role: she is almost the conscience of the film, or certainly the innocent observer, and sometimes seems to take on a role as a function of Fanny herself. She’s also, somehow, the child as whom the viewer is invited to watch the story; the little girl practicing up on how to be a big girl; and also, sort of, the angel of love. VERY interesting. The mother, Mrs Brawne, is wonderfully mothering. That’s an awful lot of Received Womanliness, up against which is only Brown (and the girlishly girl-friendly Keats).

One thing this film does do is turn around a little bit the received story of Fanny Brawne as the flibbertigibbet who was unworthy, the trivial shallow girl reviled by generations of Keatsologists. It shows her as really his ‘Bright Star’, the young woman who loved Keats. She waits for him when he goes away, she’s there when he comes back. Of course she’s the ‘steadfast’ one – he has so many more claims on his attention, of which evil Brown – synecdoche for the Man’s World – is represented as the harbinger. Fanny is completely transformed in the film from silly untried girl in attention-seeking over-bright clothes to a young woman virtually widowed at 20. She cuts her hair, which the real Fanny did, puts on black, and walks the Heath – which the real Fanny also did, for many years, often late at night. She wore mourning for six years.

There’s a really interesting and moving scene, when he’s lying ill, where she and Keats recite alternating verses of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, where each of them becomes the object of the stanza:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

…..I met a lady in the meads,
…..Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
…..Her hair was long, her foot was light,
…..And her eyes were wild…

Of course, as in all the best, dialogue, these two are really talking about two things here. She refers to his illness; he refers to her. But by the last line he is also talking about what’s to come.

…..She found me roots of relish sweet,
…..And honey wild, and manna-dew,
…..And sure in language strange she said—
…..‘I love thee true’.

…..She took me to her Elfin grot,
…..And there she wept and sighed full sore,
…..And there I shut her wild wild eyes
…..With kisses four.

…..And there she lullèd me asleep,
…..And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
…..The latest dream I ever dreamt
…..On the cold hill side…

Jane Campion is an under-rated filmmaker. She’s not so good at the jokes, the earthy matter-of-fact. (The men’s humming choir in the film has a precedent in real life, when a group of them decided to imitate an orchestra. Keats did the bassoon. I can’t help thinking that might have been more truly refreshing.) But she’s right here in the world. Like Keats, she gathers sense impressions and presents them as a moment of truth in beauty, only her truth always adheres to the interior view. (She takes risks, of course; she constantly runs the risk of bathos, or of over-seriousness, or of waftiness; but she gains from those moments, too.) I still love ‘The Piano’, which seems perfectly judged to me. She’s like the Alice Oswald of film; or she’s filming the mythical ‘female sentence’ that Virginia Woolf wrote about in A Room of One’s Own. Her film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Secret Garden – the ultimate ‘girls’ book’ and a deep favourite of mine from the age of about 7 – has no Hollywood in it at all; it’s utterly faithful to the atmosphere and vision and the (feminine?) interiority of the story, and also to the fact that children suffer.

Here is a point of connection to ‘Bright Star’, where Fanny sobs in the arms of Keats, the night before he leaves for Rome, saying, ‘How can we be created to suffer like this?’

One flaw, I think, is the foregrounding of Fanny’s suffering. It is a little adolescent, of course. But, while the amazing, mad, realistic, life-over crying Abbie Cornish does when Fanny hears of Keats’ death is impressive – is it drama? It reminded me of that ghastly self-indulgent moment in ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’… Ugh.

The thing is, it’s cheap. Humans are programmed to emote empathetically with one another, we mirror each other’s facial expressions and body language, we laugh when others laugh, and the sight of grief is enough to make us cry. So, in this scene, we cry – but without really knowing why, because we’re being forced to in the most primitive way, not (despite the story giving ample reason) for a reason. ‘The Piano’ didn’t make this mistake.

Far more interesting and affecting is the sequence in the film when Keats goes away with Brown and writes letters to Fanny, and she creates a butterfly farm in her room: the symbolic correlative, the outward manifestation of her feelings. This sequence is ethereally beautiful, dreamlike, sort of miraculous, and it invites the viewer in, rather than battering them at the doorway with her emotion.

The men are perceived only as they relate to Fanny, hence the treatment of Brown. And it’s very powerful, cutting out that whole world we’re actually more familiar with, the famous group of friends, the Hazlitt Wordsworth Lamb Hunt Severn Haydon Taylor etc etc world, the active engagement in cultural life, the surgeons, the artistic disputes and the DRINKING. (While lodging with Brown, for example, Keats paid £5 ‘and haf the liquor bill’.) Gone are the parties, the clubs, the theatres (Keats was also for a time a theatre critic), the literary rivalries, Leigh Hunt, the actual work in the world that he did; gone is the apothecary, and gone all outward sign of masculine worldly endeavour. Even in his room, collaborating with Charles Brown, he seems to be doing something airy and undefined. We see him, in fact, not as we’ve read about him, but as a girl stuck at home might see him.

There’s an account, in I think Andrew Motion’s biography, of a party around this time, the end of Endymion time, where the present company, the ladies having retired to the drawing room, disputed upon ‘the etymology of the word C–t’. And I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Keats had at least one episode of what we now coyly refer to as an ‘STD’. Very far from the chaste boy-band pinup of the film.

Tellingly, the men, Keats’ friends, appear at the last moment as agents of doom, determining what’s to become of their friend, and paying his passage to Rome – forming a council in which Fanny has no part, and simply taking him away.

I think the film for me anyway is most fruitful (I say this as a person who was weeping on the couch last night and simultaneously annoyed by that) as an interrogation of that female view. We really are shoved right in it, and we know enough about Keats (I know enough about Keats) to know it isn’t Keats – it has to be a viewpoint of Keats, and it is.

The screenplay uses many of Keats’ own words, from letters and even from poems, taken out f context and reapplied. This is very clever but can be annoying: 0ne scene, for example, perpetrates the usual misreading of that famous line, ‘If poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’.

That is NOT, N-O-T, a statement about craft.

Another thing the film does is to make their informal ‘engagement’ begin about ten days before he sails for Rome, like a deathbed conversion. In fact, they’d had an understanding for over a year and a half before that. The film ratchets up (I use the annoying phrase advisedly) the pain and suffering involved in loving each other, beyond what it even was. This seems to me merely manipulative. They had an understanding.

And as to the scene at the end when Brown says to Fanny (three times) ‘Do you want me to say it?’ and then (three times, and then shouting it), ‘I FAILED JOHN KEATS’, well. You should really HAVE a shark before you JUMP it.

But there are things about which, and to which, this film is very true. I now want Jane Campion to make a film about Mary Wollstonecraft or Fanny Burney.