Yesterday, I went to see Bright Star, the new movie about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. What a gorgeous movie--between the landscapes, the costumes, the language--just sumptuous.
The plot held me captive, even though I knew the ending. I had a similar moment to when I was watching a film version of Romeo and Juliet, that hope against hope that these crazy kids will find a way to be together. And I sobbed and sobbed when it didn't work out.
I've taught the poems of Keats and the biographical backstory for twenty years now, and somehow, I tend to forget about the real people who are there lurking in the story, the people who must deal with the devastating loss that follows a shattering love. This movie won't let you forget.
This movie will make you glad that you live in our century, with its medical developments that keep humans alive longer. But it also reminded me of the AIDS plague, which struck down so many artists before the development of protease inhibitors. It always amazes me to consider how many 19th century artists died of tuberculosis and other diseases which we can cure or control now.
I loved the movie for its insight into the creative process, although I wish the movie had focused more on that aspect than the doomed love. Keats credits his love for Fanny Brawne with his renewed writing spurt, and many literary scholars credit her for his late life masterpieces.
In some of the most evocative scenes, we do get to see him creating one of those masterpieces, "Ode to a Nightingale." And at the end, we get to hear the voice of Keats read the whole poem over the credits. Just beautiful.
I liked that Fanny is also shown as a creative type. She sews and creates all sorts of fashion designs that haven't been seen before.
When reading literary works from the nineteenth century or reading about pre-20th century life, I'm always struck by how incredibly difficult it was, unless you were the first born son into a well-to-do family. I complain about how my job, which is mostly administration, interferes with my creative life, but a movie like Bright Star reminds me that I'm lucky to have an income stream, so that I can focus on my art during my free time. And that movie reminds me of how fortunate I am to have free time, how easy it is to do tasks, like cooking and washing, that would have taken 19th century people at least 3 times as long as it takes me.
Bright Star is one of those movies that makes me happy to be an English major, for I suspect there were some visual bits of the movie that were more obvious to me than to someone who had never heard of Keats. Knowing the backstory also helped, I imagine. A thoroughly 21st century person wouldn't understand why Keats' poverty made it impossible for him to marry: of course you would marry and love would conquer all. Nineteenth century people were much more brutally realistic about that than we are.
Bright Star also has much to teach us about why we read poetry. Keats compares it to diving into a lake. You don't dive into a lake to analyze the lake or the experience. No, you dive into a lake so that you can luxuriate in the feeling of the water. His ideas seem quaint and ultra-modern at the same time.
But I'd watch this movie with the sound off, if I had to--that's how beautiful the movie is.
So, if you're looking for a way to open up poetry paths for your muse to wander down and meet you, I'd recommend this movie. If you need a reason to sob, I recommend this movie. If you're just interested in luxuriating in the lush landscapes, go see this movie.
After all, what are your alternatives? You already know what Michael Moore has to say. You saw Fame when it first came out 20 years ago. You're tired of horror movies that are violent in increasingly disturbing ways. The movies that are supposed to be comedies aren't.
Go see a movie by a talented female director who actually read biographies of Keats as she wrote the screenplay. Go see a movie that values poetry above all. Go see a movie that makes passion sexy and breathtaking--without any sex scenes.
The pop culture junk will still be there next week. But movies like Bright Star are rare.