Written and directed by Jane Campion and based on the John Keats biography by Andrew Motion, this 2009 film is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen and it captures one of the most touching romances in history. It takes its title from one of Keats’ most moving poems, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.”
In 1818, the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), at the age of 22, moves into one half of a duplex in Hampstead, a suburb of London, with fellow writer Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). His book of poems, Endymion (containing what is now one of the most famous openings in all literature: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”) is considered a failure and he himself is deep in poverty, living off the good graces of his friends. The other half of the duplex is occupied by a family by the name of Dilkes, who introduce the writers to their friends, the Brawnes, consisting of a mother (Kerry Fox), a teenage daughter, Fanny (Abbie Cornish), an adolescent boy, Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and a little girl of about ten, Toots (Edit Martin).
Fanny Brawne is a beautiful, stylish young woman who sews all of her own clothes. Her interest is piqued by Mr. Keats, a quite good looking man, so she and her siblings go to a book store in London to buy a copy of Endymion. Since it hasn’t sold, there are plenty of copies available. Although she loves the opening, Fanny finds herself out of her depth as she reads on, so she solicits help in understanding poetry from Mr. Keats. Charles Brown objects to her because he feels that she is a distraction to the writing, so he teases her about her mind, her limited understanding of the world and he plots to keep them apart.
It is a tactical error, for the more Fanny and John are held apart, the more they crave each other’s company. Since Fanny is an inspiration to John, Brown has a greater difficulty. When Fanny and the kids accompany John to London to visit his sick brother, Tom, her sympathy increases and when Tom dies, she helps John to deal with his grief. He spends Christmas with the Brawnes, despite Brown’s objections, and grows very fond of the entire family. But John holds himself apart from Fanny and when she asks her mother, the answer she receives is, “Mr Keats knows he cannot like you, he has no living and no income.”
In February, Fanny receives a valentine from Brown that upsets her and when John finds out about it, he confronts them, accusing them of being lovers. Brown warns John about Fanny, claiming she is merely flirting with him, but John sees from her actions that she does love him. The Dilkes move out of the duplex and the Brownes move in, so Fanny and John are thrown together every day and their romance heats up quickly. With the coming of summer, Brown must leave to take his summer rental and John must go with him. This enforced absence makes the two lovers inconsolable and the letters fly back and forth between them furiously.
I won’t give away the ending, but it is only fair to say that John Keats died at the age of twenty-five.
The cinematography by Greig Fraser is simply amazing. One stunning image is followed by another. Color jumps out at you and the compositions are at times breathtaking. The Production and Costume Design by Janet Patterson fully compliments the photography. Combined with a number of period musical compositions, a complete world of English life is created.
In this beautiful picture we are treated to two wonderful performances from Wishaw and Cornish. They seem to be bonded on a very deep level and the beauty of their love is almost painful. The liberal use of Keats’ poetry and love letters gives the film an aural as well as a visual beauty, for he was a gifted genius in the use of words. All of the supporting actors are extremely well cast and pull of their roles with complete believability.
It’s a stunningly lovely picture and anyone at all interested in great romances should see it!