Monday 9 November 2009
A Thing of Beauty
I long to believe in immortality…If I am destined to be happy with you here-how short is the longest life. I wish to believe in immortality-I wish to live with you forever.
John Keats to Fanny Brawne, July 1820
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. It is indeed, and Jane Campion’s new movie Bright Star, about the tragic and moving love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a thing of beauty. I liked The Piano, the film for which Campion is best known, but this is better; this is truly special.
There is a wonderful succinctness to it all, sharp imagery and a delightful economy in words and scenes, beautiful without being overly lavish, highlighting the growing love between Fanny, played by Abbie Cornish, and Keats, played by Ben Whishaw; highlighting, perhaps, the nature of love itself. Both of the leads are super, oh but Wishaw is John Keats, John Keats as I imagine him, pale, thin, intense, fey; hopelessly, hopelessly romantic.
The action begins in 1818 in the village of Hampstead (it was once!), where Fanny and Keats are living next door to each other, and proceeds over the next three years until shortly before the poet’s death from tuberculosis in 1821. To begin with Fanny has little interest in either Keats or poetry, taking pride, rather, in her own skills as a dress-maker and designer, coming across as rather shallow and vacuous. But bit by bit they fall in love, intense, deep…and hopeless.
Campion describes her movie, which draws on Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats, as “a ballad, a sort of story poem.” And that’s really how it proceeds; the story is the poem. There are some passages and lines from Keats poetry, though this is really subsidiary to the interplay between the two characters. Here the exploration of emotions and moods takes first place. Some of the imagery, the cinematography, is just so starkly beautiful that it’s almost impossible for me to put into words. Let me just say that the boundaries between life and art seem to dissolve altogether
Cornish and Whishaw show with skill and conviction how the two characters become entwined in each other. There is passion, yes, but no consummation; in the end there is only consumption, the disease that carried Keats away in Rome. Fanny learns of his death from his friend Charles Brown, played by Paul Schneider, a scene intercut with his coffin being carried in front of the Spanish Steps. Fanny breaks down; I broke down, with lavish waterworks, which continued through to the closing credits, over which Whishaw reads Ode to a Nightingale, and reads it beautifully. This is a movie to savour.