Bright Star, is a gutsy and wonderful film. Among many courageous and beautiful things she does for the story (the love of John Keats and Fanny Brawne), here are three:
- She trusts the poetry. As the credits roll at the end, Ben Whishaw (as John Keats) speaks "Ode to a Nightingale" in a quiet voiceover. When it began, I doubted whether the film would dare to give us the whole 80 lines of the poem, but I was wrong to doubt. For those who stay for the credits (admittedly, those who, like me, love film and poetry), the poem is given voice. We need that kind of immersion to remember why Keats is great and why we still read these poems. (Unfortunately, the poem is also underlaid by a wordless choral melody that distracts from its power.)
- She trusts the details. For me, biopic is a genre often marred by a grandiose historicity, constantly waiting for the big, known moments in the life of the central figure -- despondency, love, breakthrough, maybe success, certainly death. In so many biopics, fatality drags the picture down into tedium punctuated by those cameo historical appearances of famous people whom we recognize. Here, the film embraces the small sounds and sights of life in a London house in the 1820s more than it brings out the big organ tones of Keats' impending death. Nobody famous (besides Keats) makes an appearance. The textures of everyday life -- cloth, wood, paper, rain -- carry us along into seeing the story as happening now.
- She trusts the "bright star." Fanny Brawne here is far from the standard flirt of Keats biography, teasing him and distracting him from his real pursuits. She is passionate, smart, creative enough to be the love of this young poet. She is a craftswoman, a designer of beautiful clothes that become the visual counterpoint to Keats' intricately sewn stanzas. Though ignorant of poetry as the affair begins, she sets out to learn how to read and appreciate it; and by the end, she has internalized Keats' poems. Not the flirt, she is also not the Muse, silently inspiring him. She becomes instead the instrument by which these poems carry themselves into history and into our own appreciative ears. She survives him, and after his death we see her walk out into the heath, grieving by speaking aloud the title poem, "Bright Star." In that poem, Keats hopes "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath." He cannot -- "to that high requiem become a sod" incapable of hearing -- but we, the world, history, the future, hear her, a real woman, voicing them. The fantasy of an "ideal reader" of poems sometimes dominates our thoughts of how they mean and live in the world; this Fanny Brawne, instead, is a real reader, as we ought to be.