Campion Gets Keats

This evening, I went to see Jane Campion's new film "Bright Star," about the romance between John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. The film takes its title from Keats' sonnet of the same name, which many believe was inspired by Ms. Brawne.

I have long been an admirer of Jane Campion's films (and of John Keats' poetry). One of my favorites, "Holy Smoke," starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, concerns itself with spiritual enlightenment and mind control. It is an intense, sexy, layered, complex work--and it made me a devotee of Campion.

Campion is both writer and director. She also has a background as a painter and, throughout her films, you see this manifested. "Bright Star" is no exception. The film is a moving painting. In the scenes with Fanny and her family, all is light, clean and fresh. Fanny has an interest in fashion, so there is a focus on fabrics and the way light shines through them. In the scenes with the poets, the colors are brown and navy; there is a dusty, musty look to everything; and the rooms are ill-lit. When Keats' friend Mr. Brown asks Fanny what color his eyes are, she describes them as "suitcase brown."

"Bright Star" is the classic tragic love story, and Campion doesn't try to make it anything other than that. A less sensitive filmmaker might have cheesed things up a bit, cluttered the film with romantic inanities, glossed over the emotional depths and trivialized the poetry. But in the expert hands of Campion, none of this happens. She highlights the best bits, especially the moment when Keats compares the experience of reading a poem to that of jumping into a lake; with elegant restraint she convincingly shows the bond of love and affection that forms between Keats and Brawne; and, without it seeming forced or awkward, interweaves Keats' poetry seamlessly into the film.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening where the filmmaker was present for a Q&A. She mentioned that when she turned 50, she decided something needed to be done about her problem with poetry. Now, I'm not sure exactly what she meant by this, but I gathered that she had the same experience many people have of being taught poetry in school and never feeling like she "got" it. As an accomplished artist herself, I would imagine she felt guilty for not being more in touch with this under-appreciated art form. She decided a good approach for her would be to set about reading poetry in the context of the poet's life. She began with Andrew Motion's biography Keats, which led to her discovery of the love letters between Keats and Fanny Brawne, which inspired the screenplay.

Hats off to Campion for taking on the challenge of poetry. I hope her film will inspire others who are fearful of the medium to take the plunge.

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