“Beauty is truth, truth movies,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Back in the halcyon days of high school, the age of LJ’s and Myspaces and Drive-Thru & Vagrant Records, when movies about Texas roller derbies were just glimmers in the brain of a star of Charlie’s Angles: Full Throttle, when Furbies took the world by storm, I decided that reading poetry would be beneficial to me as a person and let me hone in on the whole literate & stylish, kissable & quiet (I was young and naive and really into Tell All Your Friends!) aesthetic. I asked my sister for some books and she gave me the collected poems of Robert Frost and the collected poems of John Keats. At the time, I was blinded by both a singular purpose and learning to drive, so I didn’t get as much out of the poetry as I expected or wanted.
What does this mean for the movie Bright Star? Not a thing except that high school me definitely have dug it. Current me also digs it because it is a wonderful film!
Bright Star focuses on the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. It’s a tragic romance as romance often are (I saw a movie about tragedy once, but that was a long time ago . . . ) due to both SOCIETY and TUBERCULOSIS (Sidenote: you know a disease is awful when there is a Wikipedia entry called “List of Notable Victims” like here). The disease takes a toll on Keats, but society is what really hurts their love with its rules and its etiquette and notions of what is proper and it makes me angry even listing what got between them! GRRRRR.
The cast is poetry in motion! Beauty is truth, and truth, this cast! Paul Schneider of Parks and Recreation fame plays Keats’ best friend, Charles Armitage Brown. The peanut butter to Keats’ jam, if peanut butter was rude, misogynistic, British, and wore lots of plaid overalls. If Charles Armitage Brown were alive today, I believe he would be a more restrained version of She’s All That‘s Dean Sampson. Probably making bets with Keats, getting him to give some poor farm girl the Pygmalion treatment, but then when she takes off her spectacles and Keasts really gets to know her. . . Get Hollywood on the line! I smell sequel.
One of the most rewarding things about watching movies is recognizing actors from movies you’ve seen before. In this case, Thomas Sangster!
Sam from Love Actually! All grown up! Maybe sort of grown up. Exciting things. He plays Fanny’s brother. He has like one line but he’s around all the time wearing top hats. So, fair trade there.
Abby Cornish plays Fanny and Ben Whishaw plays John. They successfully convey the romance, if by “successfully convey” I mean “make the audience believe that they will never love as fully and passionately as this.” So much love! Too much love? Never enough love!
The first amazing thing about the romance is how many times I thought “Man, John Keats sort of looks like James Franco.” The second amazing thing is the fiery chemistry. At certain points of the movie, the couple in front of me took out sandalwood fans and started using them. The guy had a tie on that he had to keep loosening. At one point, he turned into a wolf and started stomping his one foot while steam shot out of his ears and his heart pumped out of his chest. Despite the restrictions (it’s PG y’all), everything comes together to amplify the romance. There is even a moment where Keats responds to an offer by Fanny with such a stern voice that I thought Whishaw was going to put on some sunglasses and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was going to start playing. That much power!
Using poets’ lives as fodder for love stories seems obvious and could lead to some awful adaptations (I’ve talked to Ryan Gosling’s people and Blake Lively’s people about a possible Walt Whitman biopic where a straw-hatted Gosling whispers into Lively’s ear “I contain multitudes.”). The story of Brawne and Keats is handled lovingly by Jane Campion. The writer/director reins in moments that could get messy under the assumption that poets are more passionate and capable of feeling than the rest of humanity. Where a John Keats biopic could become masturbatory or esoteric, the story of Brawne and Keats makes a compelling tale. That, and the movie makes England look like the most beautiful postcard in the best gift shop where you have all the best coupons and there is no limit on how many coupons you can use at one time.