[Rating: 2/5] unless you’re a Romantic, then [Rating:4/5]
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die…
John Keats, “Ode to A Nightingale”
Watching “Bright Star” reminded me of exactly how I felt about Keats and Romantic poetry when I was an Literature student in college. Keats was a fine craftsman; he is, in my opinion, clearly the best of the Romantic poets, head and shoulders above Wordsworth or Byron in his poetic construction and imagery. Only I wish he had been born in a different time; I have little patience for the Romantic obsessions with death and suffering, and the strange idea that something–anything– is better perpetually desired than ever possessed. I can respect the idea that it’s noble to pursue something you can never have, but to pursue something because you can never have it, that seems mixed up to me.
Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” is a movie about the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, the girl next door. A movie about the Romantic period, it feels like it could have been made during the Romantic period. It is, indeed, half in love with death. I am not giving anything away to let you know that Keats dies before the two can marry; in fact, one wonders if terminal illness had not been part of the picture, if there’d been a love affair at all. If the desiring is better than the having, then nothing fits the bill better than a destitute dying lover.
And that’s all there is to it. It’s pretty, it has nice cinematography and costume design. The acting is sufficient; Ben Wishaw somehow embodies the notion of a frail, otherworldly poet; he played Rimbaud in “I’m Not There” before this. And Abbie Cornish manages to bury her fiery sensuality in Victorian garb and propriety. But nothing happens here; they fall in love, and he dies. Even as a character study, it’s pretty thin. It’s not clear what they see in each other; she is intrigued by his poetry, and asks him to teach poetry to her, but does she ever learn? Not important. Keats decides to placate his friends by spending the final months in Italy, instead of with her, so that his friends can feel like they’ve helped him. Was there any fallout to this decision in their relationship? Not important. All that matter is that he’s dying, and they’re in love, and oh, the agony, the sweet sweet agony.
I suppose I am criticizing this movie for doing something well that I just don’t care to see done. If you’re a fan of Keats and Romantic poetry, or if you yourself are half in love with death, you will find “Bright Star” a wonderful sauce to stew in, as you vicariously experience the delightful, delicate agony of doomed love. If like me, you don’t have time for this kind of frivolity, then be warned. “Bright Star” is two hours of watching people watch a man die, and feeling so terribly, terribly sad about it.