Lost in Soft Amaze
Yourself—your soul—in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom, or I die.
—John Keats, “I cry your mercy—pity—love!—ay, love!”
Much like the ode that provides its title, Bright Star is focused on the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. In many ways, director Jane Campion puts herself in the poet’s position, with Fanny (beautifully portrayed here by Abbie Cornish) as her muse. Visually, this is easily done. Fanny is a “student of fashion,” and as such stands out as a very colorful spot against otherwise drab, wintery settings and, most notably, in contrast to the dark and shabbily suited Keats (Ben Whishaw). We rarely see him without her, or when we do, he is writing to or pining for her.
This focus reveals Fanny’s own artistic process. The film opens with the camera tight on a needle and thread pulling through fabric, as the designer and seamstress is sewing pleats into her latest creation. When she befriends Keats, he resists her interest in his work (“Poetic craft is a carcass,” he tells her). After she convinces him to take her on as a pupil, he is frustrated by her insistence on interpretation, on “working out” meaning. She misses, in his view, the sensory pleasure of poetry: “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out.” Fanny does seem to take the lesson to heart, though only through Keats’ own poems, in particular those inspired by her. Their recitations to each other, of his words about her, are deeply sensual, an exchange of both emotional and artistic understanding.
These recitations are also the most profound of Fanny and John’s many substitutions for a sexual relationship. Fanny brushes her lips across John’s letters and breathes them in. or she spots him through her window, then lies back on her bed, letting a breeze blow over her body and under the hem of her dress. Her connection with John and nature here embodies his lesson on luxuriating in the senses, even as the scene illustrates the Romantic poets’ investment in the concept of “Nature.”
As lovely and relatively straightforward as these images are, Campion does complicate the issue of sexuality in Bright Star, with Fanny the more sexually assertive of the two. She is a known flirt, but quickly moves beyond that with John, initially confounding him with her pursuit and suggestive comments. For his part, John is unsure of how to proceed, telling her, “I am not sure I have the right feelings towards women.” His relationship with his friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) only makes this statement more emphatic. Brown guards John, almost obsessively, in an effort to preserve him artistically. Marriage would force the poet to earn a living, effectively sapping him of his creativity and energy for writing. Though Brown explains himself (“Your writing is the finest thing in my life”), Fanny questions his motives, accusing him of wanting John all for himself.
The tension between Fanny and Brown feminizes Keats, whose gendering is affected as well by poverty, sexual confusion, and eventually, illness. Brown supports him financially and is his partner artistically. But Fanny earns money with her designs (not enough to live on, but more than Keats) and has her own artistic claim on John as his muse and pupil. To complicate the relationships further, as boorish as Brown is, the film indicates a sexual attraction between him and Fanny. At some level, Brown’s abrasiveness and sarcasm seem more closely matched to Fanny than John’s dark brooding. While Fanny and John seem content to sit about and adore one another, the arguments and insults traded between her and Brown have the energy of two people who love to hate each other.
Though John and Fanny can never marry (owing to their economic situations), they remain deeply passionate about one another. The movie treats the highs and lows of their romance with sensitivity and not a little humor: in one moment, Fanny is collecting butterflies in response to one of John’s letters and in another, she’s sending her younger sister to ask her mother (Kerry Fox) for a knife so she can kill herself. When faced with their final separation, it is Fanny who offers herself sexually and John who protests (“I have a conscience”). At this point, at long last, John is completely sure of himself and his decision. Still, his rebuff seems aimed at preserving his own virtue rather than Fanny’s (who, by now, is already the “source of so much gossip”). If the film begins to tell her story, his poems remain focused on his.