December 23, 2009 -- This love story, based on the real romance between famed poet John Keats and his neighbor Frances 'Fanny' Brawne brings to mind the romances of Jane Austen because of the time and place it is set, England in the early 1800s, and because of the general themes of romance between intelligent, literate adults beset by financial troubles. There are at least a couple of major differences between this story and Jane Austen's stories. The first is that this story is a tragedy, like Romeo and Juliet. Austen's stories generally have happy endings. Secondly, the romantic passion in this story is explicit, while Austen's work reflects English reserve. The passion in Austen's works is generally sublimated and simmering just below the surface. It is hinted at, but is rarely allowed full expression, and then usually only at the end of the story. More than anything else, this story is reminiscent of the blunt, artless romances in the Twilight movies, including the endlessly agonized broodings of young lovers whose love is never consummated.
Frances 'Fanny' Brawne (played by Abbie Cornish of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) first sees the smoldering handsome young Keats (Ben Whishaw of “The International”) at a party in 1818 and makes snide remarks about his poetry. Keats is intrigued and the two are gradually drawn into a romance despite the protestations of Keats' friend and benefactor Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). Brown thinks that Fanny is a gold-digger, though, in truth, Keats has no gold to dig. Keats would not become popular and well-read until after his death. Fanny witnesses John Keats nursing his brother Tom, who was dying of tuberculosis, a highly infectious disease for which there was no treatment at the time. It was while nursing his brother that John Keats caught tuberculosis himself.
In the movie, John Keats' illness becomes fodder for melodrama as he flees a London flophouse to return to his love in the London cold and damp. The movie has him getting sick after traveling without a coat in the winter. In fact, Keats had begun suffering from tuberculosis in July of 1918 while on a walking tour of Scotland with Brown. Keats' declining health is a central part of this tragic story. The other part of the story is the fact that Keats has no money. If you are familiar with this period of English history, you know that women, including Jane Austen, were expected to marry into money in order to help support their families. It is only with a lot of carrying on that Fanny is allowed to be engaged to Keats, despite his lack of money.
There is real passion in the scenes between Fanny and John. There is real agony for both of them when they are separated, which is often. The agony of love is on full display here as Fanny spends days in bed pining for her absent love and John practically crawls miles in the snow to be with Fanny. John also makes an audacious display of jealousy after he finds out that Brown has written a valentine card for Fanny. Fanny throws a fit when she learns that she is to be separated once again from John. There is nothing subtle in these scenes. This is young love in all its glory and agony. This is not the reserved, stiff-upper-lip sort of love one seen in Jane Austen's works. This is flat-out, in-your-face, head-over-heels young love with all the jealousy, pouting and suffering that goes with it. These are the sorts of over-the-top displays that either sweep you away, or you end up laughing at the silliness of it all. I was not swept away, but many others have been.
If you are looking for the poetry of Keats, you won't be disappointed. There are plenty of readings in the film, including a long voice-over of a Keats poem during the credits at the end of the film. This film seems to make the argument that Fanny was the inspiration for some of Keats' poems about love. Keats did write some of his best poems during this period. However, the film does not show any similar inspiration for Fanny. Early on, Fanny is an accomplished seamstress and dress designer, boasting to Keats that she could make money doing this. Later, she seems to abandon this craft completely. If Fanny is Keats' inspiration, how come he is not her inspiration? It doesn't really make sense.
This film doesn't do any favors for the memory of Charles Armitage Brown, either. He comes off looking like a small-minded, petty snot. In real life, Brown was a great friend to Keats and literally saved much of Keats' work from being destroyed after Keats' death. Writer-director Jane Campion, best known for another romantic movie, “The Piano” (1993), has made a similar kind of movie with “Bright Star,” only this one is less overwrought and silly. Both movies are blunt romances, but at least in “Bright Star” nobody gets a finger chopped off and Harvey Keitel is not crawling around naked on screen. Thank God for small favors. This film rates a C+.
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