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.
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”.