There's something about Keats.

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Sept. 25 2009 4:25 PM

There's Something About Keats

Jane Campion's terrific Bright Star.

Paul Schneider and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star
Paul Schneider and Ben Whishaw in Bright Star

Bright Star (Apparition), Jane Campion's new film about the brief love affair between John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne, is a thing of beauty: the rare film about the life of an artist that is itself a work of art. Campion's inspiration was Sir Andrew Motion's massive 1997 biography of Keats, which attempted to supplant the popular image of Keats as a Romantic martyr who died of consumption at age 25 with a portrait of the poet as a vibrant thinker and citizen, engaged in the debates of his time. But Keats proves as tough to demythologize as Marilyn Monroe: He died so young, his life was so tragic, and the small body of work he left behind is so incomparable, that any depiction of his short life is bound to be tinged with idealization.

That's why Campion was smart to make her film less about Keats than about Fanny Brawne, the fashionable, flirtatious young woman who captivated him in the spring of 1818 and lived next door to him in Hampstead for the last two years of his life. Fanny, as played by the up-and-coming Australian actress Abbie Cornish, is a curious heroine. She's not a quick-tongued wit, like Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet. She's grave-faced and a little stolid, skeptical of flights of fancy. ("Poems are a strain to make out," she tells her little sister after sending her to a bookstore to buy Keats' Endymion.) Fanny is inordinately proud of her gifts as a seamstress, and she dresses herself in homemade finery that's outrageously ornate for the simple village life she leads. (Meeting Keats at a party, she brags, "This is the first frock in all of Hampstead to have a triple-pleated mushroom collar.") Campion's insistence on Fanny's sewing skills is a feminist gambit, yes, but one that's entirely consistent with the character. By emphasizing sewing as Fanny's creative outlet, Campion shows the social constraints on women in Regency-era England and also gives the poet's muse an art form of her own: When Fanny presents Keats with an exquisitely embroidered silk pillowcase, it's a kind of sewn poem.

Though Campion shares Fanny's fondness for sumptuous textiles, Bright Star is an aesthetically austere film. It takes place, essentially, in one location: the grounds of the conjoined houses that the Brawne family shared with Keats' friend, the writer Charles Armitage Brown (played with a Scottish brogue and a rascally gleam by the marvelous Paul Schneider). After Keats' brother Tom dies of consumption, he joins Brown in his lodgings, where the two lounge about all day pursuing their muses and worrying about money. (Keats is played by the delicate-framed English actor Ben Whishaw, who was last seen in a similarly romantic role: He played a distinctly Rimbaudian incarnation of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' biopic I'm Not There.) Then there's Fanny's family: her mother (Kerry Fox) and young siblings Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Toots (Edie Martin, who looks like a pre-Raphaelite angel). Rather than ahistorically imagining early-19th-century life as an endless whirl of dances and arch repartee, Campion captures the narrowness of most people's social worlds at that time: Evenings are spent with family around the fire. Keats and Fanny's courtship takes place largely in the presence of others.

True in nearly every detail to the facts of Keats' and Fanny's romance (which even provided its own subplot: Charles Brown really did impregnate the Brawnes' Irish housemaid), Bright Star is even more Keatsian in spirit. Though there are mercifully few scenes of the febrile poet at work (is there anything more boring than watching a writer write?), Keats' poetry (and fragments from his remarkable love letters) is cannily deployed at the right moments. Resting his head on Fanny's chest in a rare moment alone with her, he recites part of the sensuous love sonnet from which the movie takes its title, and the viewer enters a fugue state of "drowsy numbness" like that both celebrated in and induced by Keats' best poetry.

One scene, in which Fanny and Toots lounge in their bedroom among dozens of shimmering captured butterflies, flirts with camp—but, later, when you hear Keats' voice reading from the luxuriant "Ode to a Nightingale" ("The coming musk rose, full of dewy wine/ The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves …"), Campion's imagery seems almost spare by comparison.

Lovers of Romantic poetry might wish this film had widened its historic scope to include some of Keats' famous contemporaries (and we already know that Gabriel Byrne makes a fabulous Lord Byron). But by choosing to focus on Fanny and the transformative passion of Keats' last years, Campion has made a film as densely concentrated as one of his late poems, a cinematic ode to what Keats, in a sonnet written for Fanny, called "the sweet minor zest of love."

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.