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There is a point in Bright Star where Fanny Brawne pines, aching in the agony of first love proclaiming that it hurts. It’s funny how much we forget how awful those years are for us when we are no longer amongst them. We tend to roll our eyes and bitch and moan at the ridiculous egocentrism of an age that we forget is still a learning one. Sure, Fanny throws tantrums and borders, if not dives headfirst into, selfishness but she has no other way of knowing what is going on within the very inexperienced walls of her romantic heart. For while she uses her passion and creative skills to make her clothes and develop her burgeoning sense of her fashion self, she struggles to truly comprehend what it is that is occurring within. And it doesn’t help that the object of her affections, John Keats, is coupled in an artistic relationship to fellow writer Charles Brown with whom Fanny does not get on.
Brown acts as that voice we so often turn towards when bearing witness to the actions of those currently in their teen years. He is frugal with his efforts to be civil with Fanny and quite often deliberately goads her into reacting to his lack of warmth. Part of Campion’s intent here is not to merely create a villain in Brown but rather to show the importance of the relationship an artist has to his or her peers. Brown really does for the most part seem to have the interests of Keats firmly at fore in his mind and sees the invasion of Fanny into Keats’ life as a possible interment of his future writing. For Keats’ lack of positive reception is something Campion delivers subtly throughout Bright Star.
The public response through a lack of purchase of his poetry continues to bite at Keats even though his talent is easily accepted within his inner circle of fellow writers. It is this representation of these relationships that identifies the importance of colleagues and friends when doing one’s work. A common ground allows one to relate far more easily and whilst Brown relates to Keats in his attempts to write he cannot comprehend the importance Brawne is beginning to have on Keats as his muse.
As their love develops so too does the presence of Keats’ work within the film. For whilst we get very little of his writing we have this ever-growing sense of his ability to convey the true beauty and pain of falling in love that he so eloquently conveyed in his words. And the relationship between Keats and Brawne is a relationship seemingly doomed from the start.
For one, Keats was an artist and an artist with little return from his craft. Success did not follow him during his lifetime and for Brawne’s family it is quite apparent that he simply cannot provide what they perceive to be of importance for Fanny, that is financial support. Fanny fails to understand this thinking as she argues that it is not the financial situation which drew her to Keats in the first place. If it was of importance surely she would have been more aware of it in the beginning.
At this point in the film it is not this mere factor which begins to impede on their burgeoning romance. Keats is struck down with tuberculosis and as his health continues to deteriorate so do the relationships that exist within the shared Wentworth Place, Brown’s house. The antagonism between Brown and Fanny becomes unbearable and as Keats grows ever more sick so does the realisation that Brown lays blame squarely on the head of Fanny as to why Keats cannot overcome his illness. In an attempt to gain better health Brown approaches the rest of Keats’ literary friends to help with the funding of Keats’ move to better weather in Italy.
At this stage of the film for those who know little of Keats’ life the realisation that the love affair between he and Fanny is not going to end happily hits hard. When Brown enters the house and proclaims,
“I failed John Keats. I did not know til now how tightly he wound himself around my heart,”
it is with an appalling sense of loss that we see the effect of Keats’ death. For here at the age of twenty-five dies a now much-lauded poet void of any realisation of his achievements, void of any realisation of how much he was loved and void of the actual sense of belonging he had when held in the arms of Fanny and amongst his circle of writer friends. For the sadness of his life ends not at his death but forever as his request for what adorns his tombstone are the words,
‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’
It is through Campion’s sure-hand that this immense loss and sadness takes hold. For whilst the focus is on the relationship between he and Fanny and the effect that the end was not a blissful one, Campion manages to reiterate that the loss of Keats was a far greater one for the world at large. Keats’ story would be nothing without the trust instilled in the performers Campion employs to enliven it. Both Whishaw and Cornish are splendidly beautiful in the realisation of young lovers. They are complex characters and both actors manage to completely embrace delivering on every nuance that set their love apart. The whole cast is splendid in this regard with Kerry Fox and Paul Schneider both central to the success of this story also.
What lies at the centre of the film’s success, however, is that Campion fails to lay judgment on the raggedness of the teenage love. She embraces the loudness of the teenage protestations and imbues the film with a sense of a real understanding of the pain of growing up. In the end I found Bright Star a beautiful film. The sheer honesty of Cornish’s performance, particularly on the news of Keats’ death, matched with the blue-ish ordinariness of the film’s look make Bright Star a film that lingers.