How Jane Campion brought John Keats back to life

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Jane Campion won awards and stole hearts with ‘The Piano’ in 1993. Sixteen years later, she has made a film about the poet John Keats. Time Out gets Romantic with the ‘difficult’ New Zealander

Jane Campion is practically roaring with laughter. She is explaining how, when it came to researching her new film about John Keats, his poetry was at the end of her reading list: ‘I was intimidated by it, I was.’ When you have an Oscar and a Palme d’Or, you can say things like that. ‘Bright Star’ glitters. There’s no other word for it; this is Campion’s finest film since ‘The Piano’ (1993). It tells the love story of Keats and Fanny Brawne in the two blissful, agonising years before his death from tuberculosis in 1821 at just 25. If sexual obsession and repression have flavoured her previous films, love is in bloom in this one.

Everything is in bloom, in fact – with glorious meadows of daffodils and bluebells (Campion is a New Zealander who lives in Australia where, she says, they don’t get seasons). When Keats and Brawne meet, he is living in rural Hampstead and she is the girl next door. He dismisses her as a flirt – a ‘minx-stress’ – and Fanny, more keen on fashion, is suspicious about poetry. It’s the death of his brother Tom that brings them together in a fierce me-and-you-against-the-world first love. British actor Ben Whishaw plays Keats and Abbie Cornish, an Australian, is Fanny.

‘I’ve got a lot more relaxed as I’ve got older,’ Campion says, laughing again. She wrote ‘Bright Star’ more or less in one draft, after reading Andrew Motion’s biography. ‘Halfway through, this love story appeared, and Keats had been anti-romantic up to then. I was dumbstruck.’ It was his letters to Fanny that got under her skin: ‘I love what they did to me. It was like finding your heart.’
What to do with Keats’s life was another question. ‘He’s incredible, but I didn’t know how to tell the story.’ She hates cradle-to-grave biopics and struggled until she settled on Fanny as her route in. So ‘Bright Star’ opens with a close-up of busy hands at work, not Keats writing but Fanny sewing. It’s an image Campion had from the start: ‘Look at the portraits of women then – they’re all sewing. Sewing and waiting.’

At first glance, Fanny Brawne is an unlikely Campion heroine. From Ada in ‘The Piano’ to Isabel Archer in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (1996), her women have kicked against their lot: won’t be good, won’t be told. By contrast, Fanny is a good girl not quite in the Campion mould: ‘I don’t think she was carrying the burden of my rebellion,’ says Campion with a giggle. ‘I just let her be who she was – someone who pretty much accepted their situation and was really good at all the things girls were supposed to be good at, like sewing.’

Was Campion always rebellious? ‘Yeah, from school days I’ve been “difficult”, as they call it. But who wants to be perfect? What they want is somebody to be no trouble, but that’s not a good way to live your life.’ She must have huge reserves of grit. Campion is a forthright lady, though hardly a toughy. She calls Whishaw, her Keats, ‘catlike’, which might describe her own style of gentle  steeliness.

The love story of ‘Bright Star’ plays out with an often playful day-to-day intimacy, avoiding overblown romance. Its restraint comes partly from the period: John and Fanny could never be alone, so they are always trailed by kids – lovely sunshiney scenes – and they share just one kiss. Campion recalls that Fanny’s diary entry on the day that John left for Italy to convalesce reads: ‘Today Mr Keats left Hampstead.’ She laughs. ‘ “Mr Keats!” Can you imagine!’ He would die in Rome, but the romance was already hopeless: he was poor, with little hope of amounting to much (reviews deemed his poetry lousy).

Campion’s treatment of love in the film is utterly uncynical, a near spiritual melting of personalities that would be unthinkable today: ‘We are well versed in the idea of projection, but they just went straight for it. That really touched me.’ Cornish and Whishaw both give career-making performances, as actors often do for Campion.

Filmed in Bedfordshire last year, ‘Bright Star’ is a young film. Campion partly modelled Fanny on her own teenage daughter. Composer Mark Bradshaw was 25 when he wrote the score. He reminds her of Keats. ‘We’re making this film about a young genius, so you’ve got to take a risk.’ Campion is in her fifties, but what was she like at 25? Completely lost, she says:
‘I didn’t know what I was doing. But I found this incredible energy when I started art school and making films. It was too strong to resist. I just went along with it.'

Read our review of the film here

Author: Cath Clarke



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