Spring is wonderful and terrible, especially in the northeastern United States. The first signs of flowers and greenery after winter are so beautiful and well-deserved that a simple walk outside can become positively dizzy. There’s that dizzying feeling of infatuation that occurs when the first real non-cold breeze hits your skin. Then, just as you snapped a selfie with your spectacular cherry blossoms nearby, the petals flutter to the ground and it’s over. Here in New York, the sidewalks are warming and resuscitating the slumbering dog pee of winter, the city smells like garbage, and we have to wait a whole year to feel the ecstasy again.
If you wish there was a way to bottle up the fleeting sense of spring happiness like me, I urge you to take a look bright starthe 2009 Jane Campion film about John Keats and his love, Fanny Brawne, played by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.
John Keats was an early 1800s poett, now famous as one of the greatest lyric poets in the English language. He was deeply inspired by William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenserand he wrote odes and ballads like “Ode to a nightingale” and “La Belle Dame without Merci: A Ballad† He died young and penniless of tuberculosis at the age of 25, and his work did not become famous until after his death. He fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a skilled seamstress and neighbor, but due to his financial situation, fragile health and the general social mores of the Regency era, they were unable to marry. He secretly gave her an engagement ring which she wore until her death, long after Keats passed away and she got married and had a family of her own (swoon!). It was during their love affair that Keats had his most prolific and inspired writing period, and it is this three-year period – from his meeting with Brawne to his death – that is captured in the film.
Jane Campion’s hallmark is an edgy, groundbreaking direction – she created the erotic thriller in the cut before Bright star – so a hooded costume drama with a richly-tailored costume drama doesn’t seem to promise the thrilling filmmaking it’s known for. But this isn’t a Jane Austen story where everyone somehow manages to get married at the end. Keats and Brawne’s love is far from doomed; to be actually doomed. All that makes the flame burn all the brighter, especially against the insanely beautiful natural backdrop of this film. Natural beauty was one of Keats’ strongest sources of inspiration, and it’s clear that Campion took this to heart. Spring’s love scenes are some of the closest I’ve seen on film to accurately capturing the feeling of being completely blissful.
There’s Keats, lanky and confused, clambering barefoot on the rough trunk of a blossoming apple tree to find a nightingale’s nest, the spiky bark and branches swaying under his weight until he finds a perch to close his eyes and watch. dreams (and get inspiration for a being masterpieces†
There’s Brawne, reading a message from Keats in an endless field of hyacinths, so overwhelmed with joy that she grabs her little sister Toots and plants savage kisses on her forehead.
There’s Brawne again, taking her siblings out to catch butterflies because Keats had written, “I almost wish we were butterflies and alive, but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more joy than 50 ordinary years could ever contain.” She lies dizzy in her sunny bedroom, rereading his letters while the insects flutter on her fingers.
And then there is the first kiss between the lovers, on a damp forest floor, filled with so much sweetness, sensuality and anticipation that my heartbeat goes up every time. The soundtrack is nothing but birdsong, and you can hear the shifting of their bodies on the earth and the touch of their lips.
I can’t remember when I first saw this movie, but it quickly became a repeat. This movie has a quality that I haven’t seen anywhere else and that I crave when I’m looking for a certain feeling. Keats coined a term, “negative power,” which he often used in his letters. He defined it as “when man is able to dwell in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable way of finding out facts and reasons.” In an interview on the making of the film, Campion says that “negative aptitude” became a guide to the creative process. You can see how that approach extends from the actors’ performances to the story itself. It’s as if Keats and Brawne are whispering to us from the past: We don’t know how long we’ll be on this earth, but it’s worth expressing and enjoying as much love and beauty as possible.
Spring doesn’t last forever, not even in the movies. There is sadness, longing and dead butterflies swept into a garbage can. It’s a beautiful, short time that fades far too quickly, but the film reminds us that it’s worth succumbing to the beauty completely.
I don’t know how many people have seen this movie, but in my scientific estimation it’s not enough. Just went back and read some reviews and learned that a few critics at the screening in Cannes were moody because some of the plants depicted were in the wrong season for the story, and some of the butterflies were species not found in England. Ignore them. They just annoyed looking for facts and reasons. Watch this video. Then take off your shoes and climb a tree.
bright star is available for buy on dvd† For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.