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Bright star, or a thing of beauty?

December 6, 2009

What can ail thee knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I have always loved these opening lines  of John Keats‘ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The first two lines with their mystical, but also traditionally Romantic, melancholy, just roll off the tongue. You want to read them out loud. The third line though, with its harder sounds, starts to suggest something different, and this difference is delivered in the wonderful shock of the shorter last line with its more staccato like rhythm. This, by the way, is my rather idiosyncratic introduction to the recent biopic, Bright Star, about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. I’m not being totally idiosyncratic though as several lines of the poem are recited in the movie…

Bright Star, which is also the title of a Keats’ poem, was written and directed by the wonderful Jane Campion (whom we Aussies like to call our own though she was born in New Zealand). According to the credits she based much of her script on a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion. The film is set in the last years of Keats’ life (surely this is not a spoiler?) between 1818 and 1821, so the fashions are exactly those I love – Regency. Through this and a host of other details, the film feels historically accurate – in tone and look at least. I only know the basics of Keats’ life so can’t really comment (without doing a lot of research!) on its veracity to the details of his and Fanny’s story. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not sure that matters if the essence of their story is achieved, and I believe it is.

John Keats' grave, Rome

John Keats grave, Rome (Courtesy: Piero Montesacro, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The film has an elegaic feel – in its muted colours, slow pace, and the rather  (unusually so for a period piece) spare music. This spare use of (spare!) music is carried through to the credits during which, instead of music, we hear Ben Whishaw recite Keats’ poetry. Despite its slow march towards its inevitable conclusion, however, the film also has some light moments, many of them in the lovely family scenes which include Fanny’s brother and sister.

One of the endearing things about the film is Fanny’s comment early on that poetry “is a strain” to understand. Poetry is not an easy art form – how many people have you heard say “I don’t get poetry”? – and there is something reassuring in having that validated.  After all, Fanny is, in a way, everygirl – compassionate but also a little wilful, somewhat coy but at the same time rather knowing. She is, as conceived by Campion and played rivettingly by Australian actor Abbie Cornish, entirely believable as a universal teen girl, but one living in the early 19th century.

In a scene between the lovers (albeit an unconsummated love), Whishaw, as Keats, recites the film’s eponymous poem:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

Here is Keats expressing the paradoxical nature of life and love, the way permanence and impermanence can exist side by side. This is rather poignant given the facts of his life: he died at just 25 years of age but his poetry has become firmly entrenched among our classics.

If you are interested in Keats’ story, or if you like films that slowly but beautifully evoke a past era, then this is likely to be a film for you. If, on the other hand, you like something with a bit of zing and an element of surprise, then you might best look elsewhere… For me though, this film is “a thing of beauty”.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009 20:46

    I overheard two men talking about this movie on Saturday in a secondhand bookstore. It went like this. The first man wondered if people would buy more Keats, now that he was in a movie. What movie? the second man asked. That movie about the affair he had before he died, the first man said. The second man thought for a moment and said that if people started buying more Keats then the improved sales probably wouldn’t last very long, because “it’s an arthouse movie.” It’s a good movie! blurts Man no. 1, bolting awkwardly off. End of conversation. It occurred to me that the second man had no idea what he was talking about, he was saying something just to say something, and the thought of it left me melancholy. I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie, though. Jane Campion interests me.

  2. December 7, 2009 21:00

    Oh dear, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Do see it though … it’s a nicely controlled movie (as long as you don’t mind things that are slow moving – and I suspect you don’t).

  3. December 9, 2009 08:51

    My local cinema says they’re getting it later in December. I’m going to keep my eye out.

    Re. how many people have you heard say”I don’t get poetry”?

    I think they’d probably qualify it if they were pressed. “You mean you don’t get Ogden Nash?” “Well – yes, but he’s funny.” “Or Lear? Limericks? The owl and the Pussycat?” “Yes, Lear’s fun.” “Well then!”

  4. December 9, 2009 09:45

    LOL … I’ll remember that next time I hear that statement! Let me know what you think when (if) you get to see it.

  5. December 9, 2009 17:38

    I will, if I make it. The last time I tried to see a movie it was one of those one-night-only screenings, and I discovered when I got there that it was the wrong day. Durn.

    When it comes to poetry, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have at least one poem that they liked, even the I-don’t-get-poetry people. Once knew someone who said that she “didn’t read” – not “didn’t read poetry” but did not read, full stop, it just wasn’t something she did – and after I threw a couple of poems her way it turned out that she liked Les Murray’s ‘Comete’. ( http://www.lesmurray.org/pm_c.htm )
    Someone else swore that he hated modern poetry, but a little later he made an exception for Paul Muldoon’s ‘A Hummingbird.’ ( http://ireland.poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=8657&x=1 )

    Everybody finds something. They just need to look around for it, that’s all.

  6. December 9, 2009 17:49

    Well, those poems pack a punch – of different ilks – don’t they. I love the wicked opening lines the Muldoon, and the rather gorgeous imagery of the Murray. Haven’t heard of Muldoon, actually,

    You clearly don’t go to many movies!

  7. December 10, 2009 08:45

    Either that, or I can’t tell the difference between Saturday and Sunday written on a piece of paper.

    I only heard of Muldoon after they made him poetry editor of the New Yorker a few years ago. (I’ve gone to double-check this fact on his Wikipedia page, which claims he’s overshadowed by Seamus Heaney, Heaney being a people’s poet and Muldoon being a poet’s poet. It says.) He’s good value. Murray is good value too, of course, although sometimes I wish he’d take off his tinfoil hat and stop moaning about how oppressed he is. I mean be clinically depressed if you’re clinically depressed, fine, but don’t try to feed us the whole all-the-academics-are-against-me bull when the world is falling over itself to laud you. Leave that to the poets who don’t have spreads in the New York Times Book Review, y’know?

    • December 10, 2009 09:32

      LOL… I have of course heard of Heaney. Maybe people’s poet is more me!! However I will look into Muldoon as I liked the poem. re Murray you may like to look at a little discussion under the Discussion tab of his Wikipedia page. (I’m not the Stellar, BTW, but do know her – in fact met her through Wikipedia.)

  8. December 10, 2009 17:26

    OK, I’ve looked at it. “Political,” really? That looks too much like code for: “They don’t agree with my version of things.” “It’s an observable paradox that in the roster of his political and social opponents there are many admirers of his poetry. It is essential to him that they remain identifiable as enemies,” in Peter Porter’s Guardian review is spot-on, or at least that’s how it looked to me after the introduction to the new edition of Killing the Black Dog (this is the last Murray I read, and it’s the root of my comment above). He goes looking for baddies. Now it means that he has to qualify himself: overseas academics like him, he’ll allow, but Australian ones don’t. They should all go to his house over Christmas and give him a big hug and a kiss and sing Christmas carols – he’d be lost. But no: he’d remember some postgraduate who gave him a funny look in the cafeteria at some point in the 1960s and off he’d go again. Good grief.

  9. December 29, 2009 10:52

    Well, at least in Chicago, the “second man’s” pronouncement that it’s an arthouse movie appears to be accurate, as it’s only showing at one (distant) university’s center for film studies — which is why I had no idea such a film existed. I may have to wait for the DVD, but I’m pleased to have been alerted to the film’s existence, as I rather like the era (favoring Byron, actually, but enjoying that whole Romantic crowd).

    • December 29, 2009 12:18

      Sounds like you’ll enjoy it … there’s even a little reference to Byron near the end! Do look out for it…

  10. May 18, 2010 18:55

    PS ‘John Keats’, Robert Gittings, 1968 … close!

  11. January 27, 2011 03:50

    This is a beautiful review of the film, and personal too. How can it not be when one is responding to the poetry of Keats and a work by Jane Campion. Yes, I always think of her as Australian too. Also, when I first saw the cover of the book Remarkable Creatures I thought of the movie poster of The Piano right away. Don’t you think there’s a similarity?

    • January 27, 2011 22:36

      Thanks Arti … as you can see, I loved it! And yes, you are right. It reminded me of something that I couldn’t put my finger on, but The piano is probably it. (BTW Saw Another year tonight – what an interesting film)

      • January 28, 2011 05:39

        Isn’t the ending of Another Year just poignant? For that final shot, I think Manville deserves an Oscar nom. I’d love to have more of your input… I haven’t heard of anyone having seen it! Here’s my review of the film http://rippleeffects.wordpress.com/2010/10/05/another-year-2010-2/

        • January 28, 2011 09:10

          An astonishing ending … will pop over and check your review. Will probably not review it myself I think as I have a bit too much on my plate at present. My husband though suggested that the scriptwriter went out for a cup of coffee and forgot to come back!! (I don’t think that’s giving anything away to those who haven’t seen it is it?)

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