3 Stars — Wholesome

Jane Campion’s film Bright Star gives us a glimpse into the brief life of brilliant poet John Keats and his three-year romance with Fanny Brawne. The romantic novel portrays the struggles of life in the early 19th century, while at the same time giving us a depiction of love at its best for today.

The life of a poet in London in 1818 was not a wealthy one. Keats (Ben Whishaw) was a favorite among the literary circles of the upper class, but he needed a patron to survive. Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider) became both his sponsor and his coveted friend. In many ways, Brown delighted in the exclusivity of his friendship with Keats that his patronage provided.

Into Keats’ life came his neighbor, Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Brawne confounds him with her attention to fashion and culture, which to him seem frivolous. She, too, is perplexed by his focus on poetry, which to her seems strangely cryptic and not to the point. Like most relationships, it is the differences between them that creates a curiosity and attraction, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that both were young and appealing.

The growth of a loving relationship in today’s world seems to be open to anyone who wishes it, but in the upper class life of 19th century England relationships become important building blocks of future security. Romantic love is a luxury that comes only after financial security. It is within this world that Keats and Brawne develop a deep love. It’s also in this world that both his patron and her family are increasingly distressed that two people without means could choose to be with someone who cannot secure their future.

Much of Bright Star walks us through the maturation of their mutual love. It’s part Masterpiece Theatre tragedy and part Jane Austen love story. With simple filming and quiet conversation, the story is captivating in its telling. The interplay between family members, the subtle jealousies of Keats’ patron and the tragedy of the failing health of Keats that took his life at age 25 are all parts of a well-told story.

Unlike most romantic novels in which passion reigns supreme, the love that Keats and Fawne share is deep and abiding. Although there are few spiritual references in the film, there are many examples of a strong moral center. When Brawne reaches a point where she is willing to give Keats anything he asks, his response is that his conscience would never let him do something that could ultimately hurt her.

In the end, Keats dies a poor man, never knowing the heights to which his literary talent would take him over the next two centuries. Brawne knew such deep love with Keats that she remained true to him for the rest of her life. Theirs is a model for a great friendship and a lasting relationship.


» The class structure of England often adds a dimension to romantic love that is foreign to Americans. Yet there are those who claim that American culture also has a class structure, but of a different kind. What do you think?

» The fact that a poet would be attractive to a woman interested in fashion implies that opposites attract. Have you found this true in your life? How has this been a blessing or a difficulty for you?

» Daniel Watkins states that Keats’ poetry offers “glimpses of human hope, and moments of despair and loneliness, and articulating a persistent need for values and principles worthy of commitment.” How do you believe his life, as portrayed by this film, expresses or denies that observation?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.