I have clear memories of watching Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) as a pre-teen. The spring and summertime passages of the film are most prominent in my recollections — the blissful, transient loveliness of flowers, billowing curtains, and butterflies. The image of the tragic Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) resting, almost floating, atop a tree, and his lover, seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), sinking to her knees in a field of blooming purple. The film occupies an interesting place in Campion’s filmography. It came six years after the psychosexual thriller In the Cut (2003) — unfairly maligned at the time of its release but since re-examined — and would be followed by a 12-year break from feature filmmaking, ending with the highly lauded neo-western The Power of the Dog (2021). For a director whose films have so often explored masochism and perverse love of both the romantic and familial variety, Bright Star feels like an outlier. There is such purity and aching tenderness to the film; each time I return to it, I am deeply moved.
Born into a working-class family, Keats was orphaned at a young age; and while he trained in medicine and could have earned a living as an apothecary, upon completing his studies he chose to pursue writing instead. His career as a published poet lasted less than four years, however, with his death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. Keats’ poems are distinguished by their sensuous qualities and the vividness of their imagery. In life and in poetry he believed in striving for the sublime. In a letter to his brothers, he coined the term “negative capability” to describe the capacity of great writers like Shakespeare to live with “uncertainties, mysteries [and] doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It’s a notion that Campion has discussed taking inspiration from, and perhaps provides a framework for understanding the film’s unique power: above all else, Bright Star seeks to capture sensations. “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water,” John tells Fanny, by way of an explanation of how poetry is to be understood.
Bright Star begins with a close-up of a needle piercing a garment. In this way, we are introduced to Fanny’s work before we even see her. Walking alongside her mother (Kerry Fox, one of the three actors who so beautifully portrayed author Janet Frame in Campion’s 1990 biographical drama, An Angel at My Table) and younger siblings Samuel (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Toots (Edie Martin), Fanny models her handmade ensemble. It’s bright red and white with a ruffled collar, and a hat topped with large yellow feathers. The fact that this experimental, technically accomplished outfit is also rather ridiculous eloquently emphasizes how very young Fanny is. Bright Star’s costumes, designed by the late Janet Patterson (who worked on a number of Campion projects including period dramas The Piano  and 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady), are deserving of particular merit. It’s in this attire that Fanny is first introduced to the young poet John. Her initial assessment is that his worn old coat needs replacing, and she spars with his friend Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), who demeans her for her preoccupation with fashion. She is, however, intrigued enough to send her brother and sister to buy John’s poetry book Endymion so she may judge it for herself. Despite her lack of interest in and understanding of poems, she is immediately drawn in by the opening line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness.”
Admiration of beauty notwithstanding, John and Fanny lack common ground at first. Fanny is spirited, a lover of dancing, wit, and other such amusing things. John, who is nursing his dying brother Tom (Olly Alexander), is understandably serious and occupied with sadness. He is confused by women and, as he will later admit, finds himself attracted to Fanny “without knowing why.” Walking side-by-side, they are strikingly opposite; he in crumpled blue and black, she peacockish and lovely in pink and white, with a characteristically structured collar and hat. Fanny is, however, deeply sobered by a visit with Tom, a change which will be revealed by her dress becoming simpler and more mature. When the young man passes away, she channels her feelings into beautifully embroidering a pillow slip to give to John.
Frances Brawne Lindon kept the love letters written to her by Keats, but none of the letters she wrote to him survived. As a result, Keats scholars have historically assumed Brawne to be a frivolous woman undeserving of the poet’s affections. Her reputation only began to improve with the publication of letters she wrote to Keats’ sister. In Bright Star, the narrative that relegated Brawne to a detrimental force in the poet’s life and career is represented through his close companion Brown.
The affronted third in a love triangle, Brown supposes Fanny an amoral flirt. He ridicules her for expressing her newfound interest in poetry, and when Fanny lies about having read the work of certain major poets — her actual knowledge and maturity having not yet caught up to her enthusiasm — he is all too happy to take the opportunity to embarrass his younger rival to John’s affections. Most cruelly, Brown writes Fanny a mocking valentine, provoking John’s fear that she and Brown will form a partnership, since he himself lacks the means to marry her. It is one of the film’s most brilliant touches to have Fanny, when first receiving the valentine, be adorned in glowingly romantic pink ruffles; but as John confronts her, her dress deteriorates in the rain, becoming lifeless and plastered to her skin. She says nothing to defend herself, angered as she is by his lack of trust in her. But Brown is also a more complex figure than this interaction suggests. He is devoted to John, whom he knows is “far ahead… and above” him. Whereas John believes in the “holiness” of romantic attachment, Brown is blunt and unembarrassed, having no qualms about engaging in a casual affair with housemaid Abigail (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), despite the significant ramifications that result.
When we next see Fanny, she bestows upon John a branch with flowers. Slightly older, her costuming remains striking and distinctive, but is now more refined and elegant. Fanny and John share close living quarters. He knocks to her through the wall, and the yearning is palpable. When Fanny returns the knock, Whishaw closes his eyes, his lashes flickering gently, and there’s something in the gesture that is both sweepingly romantic and melancholic. Fanny and John are inhabiting the same space, feeling each other’s presence so intensely, and yet circumstances still keep them apart. John pushes his bed against the wall to be closer to Fanny. “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days. Three such days with you I could fill with more delight than 50 common years could ever contain.” These glorious words are taken verbatim from one of Keats’ letters to Brawne, but Fanny’s response — immersing herself in an impassioned daydream by filling her room with all manner of the winged creatures — is entirely imagined by Campion. The director shows that there exists for the two lovers an ideal world in which suffering and death cannot pervade. The tragedy is that it cannot last, and the spell is broken even before all the butterflies have died and been swept away.
During his painfully short lifetime, Keats was generally unsuccessful, and his work was reviled by some. Scottish author and literary critic John Gibson Lockhart took particular issue with Keats’ poetic aspirations given his class background, calling Endymion a work of “imperturbable driveling idiocy,” concluding “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr. John.” A popular myth about Keats places the blame for the poet’s deteriorating health and eventual death on this review. Fellow Romantics Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron would both allude to this belief, the former’s “Adonais” casting Keats as a “pale flower” sadly unable to withstand criticism, and the latter’s “Don Juan” rather less charitably taking a jab at the younger man for being “kill’d off by one critique, just as he really promised something great.”
But while Bright Star does make reference to Lockhart’s review in an early scene, the symbolic device of John’s demise is instead shown to be an object intrinsically linked to Fanny. During their reunion after a long separation, Fanny notices that John’s coat has a small hole. Tenderly, she offers to mend it for him, expressing her love through the form that is most natural to her, as she had previously done with the pillowslip. It is only a few short scenes later that the air turns cold, and Fanny realizes John has gone to London without his coat. By the time he re-emerges from the dark and pouring rain, he has contracted a serious illness from which he will never recover. “We have woven a web, you and I, attached to this world but a separate world of our own invention,” John tells Fanny, during the unbearable night which they both know will be their last spent together. “We must cut the threads.”