Oct 2, 2009



Left: "To Autumn"

With a weekend approaching, I hope you'll consider seeing Bright Star, a movie I liked for at least an hour. It’s the story of the tragic British Romantic poet, John Keats, that small, frail man who died of consumption at 25, far from home, with no clue of his place in the literary history of the world.

Be warned, however, this film centers almost entirely on his tumultuous love affair with Fanny Brawne. Of course, you have to love a love affair in which two passionate 20-somethings address each other as Mr. Keats and Miss Brawne. Bright Star is very much a period piece, and it seemed authentic.

I stayed away from, or fell asleep in, some other Masterpiece Theater movies that many people liked: Room with a View, Howard’s End, and such. I found Bright Star better fare, though that might be the result of my knowing a little, and at times caring a lot, about Keats the poet and Keats the human.

So imagine my disappointment to find the movie becoming only a partial look at the life and poetry of Keats, focusing instead on the most marketable feature—trustworthy, fickle old eros. To be fair, we do see a version of his friendship with Charles Brown, along with the reason Brown did not accompany Keats to Italy. But we see precious little of Keats as under-appreciated young poet, loyal son and brother, medical student, and victim of vicious reviews. Where is the condescending Wordsworth? Where are Byron and Shelley? Where is the guy who called the diminutive hero "little Johnny Keats" as part of a literary review. (And we think the banter is rough in our time and place . . . ).

I was also surprised to see Fanny Brawne portrayed so favorably. I haven’t kept up with Keatsian scholarship, but in the days when I did, I had the strong impression that she’d done him wrong. Here, she’s heroic. Of course, I don’t mind that rendering if it's reasonably accurate, and it’s an interesting take on their relationship. But after that first hour, I stopped learning things and might as well have been viewing Titanic or West Side Story.

Well, maybe that’s hyperbolic grumpiness. Some revisiting of a star like Keats is better than none, and to be fair, many of the well-known aspects of Keats’s life are given at least a passing nod. Also, of course, this film will sell better than the one I’d have made. On the other hand, I doubt it will sell as much as it should, so please go see it. If you don't love poetry or Keats, this still serves as a useful foil to our times, an aid to perspective on how pretty or graceful or tough things are or are not these days.

Above all, Bright Star is visually stunning—foggy old, sunny old, flowery old England at its best and worst. It feels like a series of one still photograph after another, a reminder of just how many powerful images movies can offer in a couple of hours.

Stay for the final credits to hear a fine reading of “Ode to a Nightingale.” And maybe read "To Autumn" along with "La Belle Dame sans Merci" when you get home.

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Anonymous said...

La Belle Dame, but that's Spencer, isn't it?

I liked Room w/a View for two reasons: Maggie Smith and Rosemary Leach. I could watch them in practically anything. Prunella Scales as well.

Banjo52 said...

You might be think of Spencer's Fairie Queene? Or maybe he has a poem by the same title?

I have a friend who is (or was) such a Maggie Smith fanatic that he made us find her house in Stratford, Ontario just so he could drive by it.
Since I was (am?) a fan too, especially The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I obeyed.

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