I'm a sucker for romantic comedies. But although details of these films' plots vary (She's a crossword puzzle editor! He's a washed-up '80s pop star!), too often the general arc is tediously the same: They meet. They part. They reunite. That's why my favorite romantic comedy of the modern era is Annie Hall, which - spoilers! - doesn't end well.
And I'm captivated by wonderful Bright Star, Jane Campion's film of the furtive love affair between the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his Hampstead neighbor, seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Bright Star is romantic. It is comic. And it is very sad. If you know anything about the tubercular Keats (1795-1821), you can guess how this story ends.
The tragedy of Keats' premature death is part of his fascination, of course, part of what makes his poetry so searing now. But not everyone is fascinated by Keats in Campion's telling, least of all the critics, who in early scenes are savaging his 1818 poem Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever"). Sales suffer. John despairs.
Meanwhile John, who's sallow and beguiling under a massive mop of hair, has an admirer in Fanny, who's somewhat interested in poetry and very interested in John Keats. She is gifted with a needle (she boasts of having sewn the first frock with a triple-pleated mushroom collar), and her family and friends think her marrying prospects are good. They're dubious of John. "Mr. Keats knows he cannot like you," Fanny's mother tells her. "He has no living and no income."
Also standing between John and Fanny is John's friend and collaborator, sour Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who is jealously devoted to John and worries that Fanny's attention will get in the way of John's writing. When Charles and John spend the summer on the Isle of Wight, Fanny despairs. I like the scenes of the two men laboring together on their play Otho the Great. Unlike some films about writers - The Edge of Love, for instance, the laughable recent movie about Dylan Thomas - Bright Star makes the act of writing look like the work that it is.
The story is told with costume-drama touches à la Masterpiece Theatre. But Bright Star transcends mere costume drama, partly thanks to Campion's lyrical camerawork. Again and again the storytelling pauses, and we're treated to lingering, mysteriously beautiful sights. John reclines in a flowering tree. Fanny lies in bed as the wind ripples the sheets. A group of singers and musicians perform a stately tune. The most stunning scene is inspired by a line in one of Keats' letters to Fanny: "I wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days." (A morbid bit of foreshadowing, the line made me gulp.) With her brother and sister, Fanny catches butterflies and keeps hordes of them in her room. They swarm and flutter around her. She is in bliss.
Not merely a gripping love story, Bright Star also has lessons to teach about poetry, and especially how we read poetry. Fanny seems desperate to know all there is to know about the subject, to the point that in one amusing scene, she lies about having mastered Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and The Odyssey in two weeks. Keats, whom she's hired as a poetry tutor, advises her to slow down. When you jump in a lake, he tells her - I'm paraphrasing here - you don't try to learn all there is to know about water. You swim.