If the bare act of sex were enough for us, we wouldn’t complicate it with our imaginings, with poetry, with movies. Like John Keats’ poetry, “Bright Star” — the new biopic about the Romantic poet — is animated by the creative energy that arises from not getting any.
“Bright Star” is an ode to the great love affair between Keats and Fanny Brawne, a daughter of the English gentry. Because Keats’ genius went unrecognized by his contemporaries, he was penniless and unsuitable for marriage to his beloved. Superficially — scenes, costumes — the film seems most comparable to a Jane Austen adaptation, but this is not an Austenian social drama where the protagonists surmount obstacles on their way to an economically prudent marriage. The drama of this period piece is Romantic; the drama of Keats’ impossible love represents psychological and social liberation from the moral strictures of society.
Filmmaker Jane Campion (“In the Cut”) succeeds in creating a work of art that stands on its own, going beyond the cliches of the biopic of the artist — only in its weaker moments does the film devolve into unnecessary documentation of John Keats sitting in a field or under a flowering tree writing famous poetry.
The film begins with young Keats (Ben Wishaw, “I’m Not There”) and Miss Brawne (Abbie Cornish) meeting in 1818 in Hampstead, England, and it follows their romance until his death two years later. In their first flirtations, Keats and Brawne have a confidence and candor that lacks 19th-century prudishness and their measured, deliberate conversations make these scenes fresh and raw. The film modulates between quiet, slow and worldly moments and instants of aesthetic lushness. Flowering trees and heavenly light are tempered by dim rooms where not much happens, a confluence of beauty and reality highlighting Keats — naturalism, his love and enshrinement of the real world.
Miss Brawne appears refreshingly average-sized and her intellect is modest, but she is heart-stoppingly beautiful, body and soul. The Keats of the movie defends her character to his vulgar, arrogant poet friend, saying that love lacks pretension. As the film goes on, their careful flirtation becomes a passionate adoration that cannot be consummated. And — since Keats’ approaching death by tuberculosis makes life on earth and their love all the more beautiful — because their love will never be consummated, it will never be over. Such drama enlivens the couple’s recitations of poems; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “Bright Star” make cameos.
And so to some extent “Bright Star” draws lines between Keats’ poetry and his amorous life, but more of this reinterpretation would have honed the film’s status as fiction, as art. As it stands, “Bright Star” hints at an interesting reading of Keats’ work — it’s up to you to fill in the rest. In seminar, maybe?