Last night, I finally had a chance to sit down and watch the movie Bright Star. Many of you have probably seen it, but this was my first time. My friend, James, recommended it to me quite some time ago, but it finally came up on the Netflix queue! I loved the film, but there were things that annoyed me...not because the film was made poorly or anything, but because some of the characters annoyed me--specifically Fanny Brawne. Now, this doesn't mean that I ended up not liking the movie. I guess what I am trying to say is that the strange (and, yes, sometimes annoying) complexity of her character is what makes the movie great...even if I wouldn't want to be around her in real life!
The movie is beautifully made and very romantic (not with a capital "R"). Keats is my favorite Romantic poet, so I wondered how I would enjoy the film. The movie follows a brief period in his life (three years, I think) when he fell in love and cultivated a relationship with Fanny Brawne.
I don't know much about her real life, but, even though I loved the movie overall, I really didn't like how the writers manipulated her character. I loved her attitude in the beginning because it was surprising. She has a quick wit and keeps everyone on their toes, she has a real talent for sewing and is a bit quirky in her fashion sense, and she is bold in a way that is admirable. But, once she falls in love with Keats, things become very strange. Maybe Fanny's emotional response to life is fabricated for the sake of drama...I just don't know...but she seems very unstable to me in the film. The girl we meet at the beginning of the film doesn't seem to fit with the girl I see mid-way through the movie. The writers recover her dignity near the end, but it is all so strange. For example, she insists that she be seen as worthy to be around the male poets and that she is intelligent...yet, when she meets Keats for "poetry lessons," it eventually becomes clear that she is merely using the time to flirt and has not read any of the poetry assigned to her (something Keats's friend points out). I didn't like this at all. This along with Fanny's crazy mood swings was disappointing (not about the film but about the character).
So, we go from strong, interesting, and bold trailblazer woman to a person who disintegrates because she can't cope with Keats's half-rejections (not really rejections...she just sees them that way...and maybe if she had actually taken the time to do her "homework" then she would have been a better reader). When things are good, she is elated and does everything suggested by Keats in his letters (at one point, he says that he wishes that they could be like butterflies...so she has her younger brother and sister catch dozens of butterflies and she puts them in her room. She just ends up with a lot of dead butterflies at the end). Her family seems very aware of her moods and attempts to placate her at all times. When things are good, she allows them to touch her and be kind to her. The children in the film, especially, seem to walk on eggshells around her.
In one particularly interesting scene, Fanny is completely in love. Though she has been horrible to her sister, she suddenly takes her in her arms and tells her that she loves her. The relationship is one of the best parts of the film because it shows, in an understated way, how manipulative Fanny can be (at least this film version of her character...I am so reluctant to say that this is how she really was...I would have to know more). I became really angry at her at this point in the movie. But, times with Keats, as I said, are not always good.
When Fanny sees any obstacle in the way of her relationship with Keats, she is an emotional wreck. She begins to behave horribly to her younger sister and family, she tries to kill herself, and--remember those butterflies??--well, she ends up sitting in a room full of dead insects. Ugh. Anyway, just because I don't like her character doesn't mean that I don't like the movie. I think that the actress playing Fanny did an incredible job and I couldn't stop watching her (especially at the end when she finds out that Keats has died).
But let's talk about Keats for a minute...
I wasn't too crazy about the guy who played Keats in the movie...but that is okay, because this is really Fanny's story. It isn't that the actor did a bad job, it was just that the writing of his character could have been so much better. I love Keats. I love the poetry of the Romantics...but Keats is the most amazing poet out of all of them, in my not-so-humble opinion. I really do love Romantic poetry. I get it. But Keats goes beyond them. He responds to the first generation Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc), but he makes his poetry his own. I am especially sensitive to treatment of "Ode to a Nightingale," the most wrenching and emotional poem I have ever read. I feel pain when I read that poem. It is excruciatingly beautiful. So, while I didn't like the reading of the poem at the end of the film or the fact that they were aligning it so closely with Fanny Brawne, I LOVED the scene where Keats climbs to the top of a tree and reclines into the branches, just like a nightingale. So, Keats had his great moments in this film!
As my students know, "Ode to a Nightingale" is really difficult to understand. It is tragic and beautiful, of course, but it is speaking back to so many things that came before it. So, I don't like the script's attempt to make Fanny the catalyst for the poem (or to even relate her to the subject matter). Though one could discuss so many things in the poem, one theme that is clearly present is death. The fact is that Keats knew he was ill for a long time or at least suspected that he was ill. In the movie, it almost seems like everything was fine and then Keats all of a sudden says, "Oh, no. I have tuberculosis." It didn't happen that way. When he writes the "Ode," he is confronting death, beginning tentatively, saying to the nightingale that he wishes that he could join him:
...That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow...
And, later, becoming resolute in his decision about death and dying:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!...
It is gorgeous and amazing. One of my favorite poems. But it isn't all about Fanny Brawne, folks.
Still, the relationship between Fanny and Keats in this movie is sweet and beautiful...
...when he is with her and things are going the way she wants them to go. But their relationship is immature, at best...not surprising considering that they were both so incredibly young. But, that craziness is also what makes this an interesting movie.
So, even though it seems like I have been bashing it in parts, I really haven't. I loved it. I will be buying a copy one day. Also, one of the greatest strengths of the movie is that you don't need to know anything about poetry or the Romantics to enjoy it. Like I tell my students, you don't have to know anything coming into a poem or a movie or a book. Though you may not get all of the references, you can still get something valuable out of the experience. And the same holds true for Bright Star.