The most curious thing about Jane Campion’s Bright Star is that I did not cry, even though I was certain I would. I always cry in films. I cry at the drop of a hat. I cry when it only looks as if a hat might drop. I am continually alert for all hat-dropping possibilities. I cried when Rachel returned to Ross in Friends, and that’s an American sitcom. On TV! And this is about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which began when he was 25 and she was 18, and finished with his death from tuberculosis at 25. This story is sadness itself, and yet I did not cry, unless a very slight welling-up towards the end counts, which I don’t think it does. (According to the National Institute of Welling-Up it was so minor it didn’t even register on its scale.) Of course, not crying doesn’t mean Bright Star has utterly failed, which it hasn’t. It is an exceedingly literate film with moments of the most enthralling beauty, but it is also so understated and restrained it feels emotionally neutered. It will not sweep you away.
The film opens in 1818, in Hampstead village, which is not yet part of London and is not yet populated by the likes of Richard and Judy and Ricky Gervais. There isn’t even a branch of Jigsaw. The very first shot is of a needle precisely piercing cloth and then we are shown our seamstress, Fanny. Fanny is very interested in fashion and is always making up-to-the-minute frocks, as you presumably had to do, pre-Jigsaw. Fanny is, at first, something of a silly fashionista — she is proud to be the first woman in Hampstead to wear a ‘triple-pleated mushroom collar’, even though it looks as if a toadstool is devouring her neck — but such is the performance by Abbie Cornish you can always sense something serious hammering away under her skin. John Keats (Ben Whishaw) is not, initially, a promising fellow. His poetic genius has yet to be recognised — isn’t recognised until after his death, in fact — and he spends most of his time in a darkened room or morosely wandering round Hampstead Heath. Fanny and Keats, when first introduced, are mutually suspicious. He is not interested in frocks. She has no interest in poetry. But at some point their suspicion surrenders to attraction and, then, love. Quite when, how or why this happens is unclear; it just does. There is no coup de foudre. This is not like The Piano, which Campion also wrote and directed, and which had the kind of erotic charge that could blow you out of your cinema seat. Anyhow, everyone is against the relationship. Keats’s best friend, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), is against it because, basically, he wishes to keep Keats to himself, while Fanny’s otherwise kindly mother (Kerry Fox) is against it because, as she frequently reminds Fanny, there is no money in poetry, to which Fanny could have replied, but didn’t: yes, mama, but there is also no poetry in money. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The look of the film is beautiful and Campion’s eye for detail and nature and light is fantastic: white sheets flapping in the wind; the intricate stitching on an embroidered pillowslip; a sensational meadow of bluebells; a white half-light streaming though a gauzily curtained window. But Campion does not get round the one thing I was most interested to see if she could get round: poetry as film. Poetry is so mercilessly intimate and inner, how do you put it on a big screen? Campion has said that she wanted Bright Star — which, by the way, is the title of a poem Keats wrote for Fanny — to be a poem itself and that ‘the story progresses in verses, charting their increasing involvement as well as their deepening difficulties’, which is fair enough, but how do you feel a film as verse? I’m not sure you can. It’s like being asked to feel a horse as a caravan. It’s not going to happen. Keats’s poems are casually recited throughout, but they never feel part of him and this, plus the fact that the romance never really takes hold, provokes that neutered effect. In short, there is no emotional wallop which, if you are always up for a wallop, has to be disappointing. Sometimes, I even like to be walloped right across the room.
Although there is much to admire in Bright Star etc., etc. and blah-de-blah, it never actually feels new or original in any way. The artist as the tragic consumptive; haven’t we travelled this weary road many times before? Plus it doesn’t, as far as I can ascertain, shed any fresh light on Keats at all. Yes, it is a thing of beauty and, yes, things of beauty are joys for ever but we can also probably say this about them: they don’t always add up to the most affecting movies. Sorry, but they don’t.