A Film Directed and Written by Jane Campion
The new film from Jane Campion, for which she wrote the screenplay, is a detail from a portrait of English poet John Keats, born just before the dawn of the 19th Century and dead at the age of 25 in 1821. To make the brief, troubled, frustrating life of a man who died largely unrecognized and unfulfilled, in an era and society noted for its emotional reticence and the straight-jackets of manners and class, is a difficult and complicated task, and Campion's film will certainly not satisfy those looking for "action" or even emotional sturm und drang.
To say that the film unwinds slowly is an understatement. It has an almost Begrmanesque pacing that incorporates long silences; space and time to simply gaze on the characters' faces, take in their surroundings and reflect. It's a kind of movie-making that has never been wildly popular with mass audiences, but one that rewards the viewer who is willing to engage.
Early in the film, Keats (Ben Whishaw) then just out of his teens - tells Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the object of his first (and last) deep affection, who has asked him to teach her about poetry, that poetry can't be (and isn't intended to be) understood or analyzed. He offers the metaphor of jumping into a pond, where the object is simply to float - to enjoy, savor, immerse oneself in the experience of being in the water, in that particular pond at that particular moment.
Campion could as easily be talking about film-making - as an art, not a commercial industry - and the film she has produced here might easily be her illustration.
Keats's poetry - although full of classical references typical of the work of educated Englishmen of the period, which seem obscure to a modern audience, but were familiar to his poetry-reading contemporaries - is very accessible. It's about real events and identifiable people - although often couched in metaphor and set in the forms of classic poetry. Even the historical and mythological personages about whom he writes are given character and individuality. At bottom, it's a reflection of his experience, distilled and framed with clarity of insight and expressive power.
Even people who don't know Keats from Yeats would recognize phrases like "a thing of beauty is a joy forever," "tender is the night" or "silent upon a peak in Darien," fragments of his poetry that have become embedded in our language and culture. But more than the language alone, he, together with fellow "romantic" poets Shelley and Byron expressed a world-view rooted in idealism and a vision of a "transcendant" reality that strongly influenced and liberated the progressive currents of thought taken up by many of the poets, philosophers and creative spirits who followed.
Campion explores Keats' romanticism, and her treatment suggests that at least in part it was a reaction to the drabness and pain in which social convention and lack of income trapped him. The romantic world view was a proto-existential refusal to be ground down and contained. Even in the face of his own illness and approaching death, Keats was able to transform the experience to one of hope and transcendence.
She takes an intensely personal approach to the story, focusing on the relationship between Brawne and Keats and tells the story from the inside out rather than (as is often the case) from the outside in, allowing the surrounding social and cultural context to be - as it surely is for almost all 22-year -olds - background to the personal drama. As such, she's content to let us see the callowness and inexperience that somehow coexisted with Keats' insight and depth of feeling.
The effect is, as Keats would perhaps have recommended, not so much a "story about" Keats and Brawne, with a "meaning," but rather an attempt to communicate the experience of what it was like for the young couple, trying to come to terms with their own feelings, their circumstances and the world of which they were a part. It's the creation of a mood, a sense, an imagined world, a recounting of a mystery that we experience rather than understand.
The screenplay is appropriately laconic. There are a few quotes and recitations of Keats' work, but the dialogue is simple and direct, and Campion is content to let a few words, in the context of her expressive imagery and her actors' delicate and balanced performances, speak eloquently. She doesn't seek to explain Keats either psychologically nor sociologically, but is content to simply present him as he is (in her imagination, of course) for the audience to experience as they will.
As director, she's combined a wonderfully evocative flow of images from the dark, chaotic parlor/workroom in Charles Brown's Hampstead home to the fields of flowering trees and wildflowers where the Brawne children play, to the dilapidated, dirty London Streets in which Keats finds lodging, with performances that never give in to self-indulgence or dramatics to slowly build towards a recitation, under the end credits, of the whole 'Ode to a Nightengale" which in many ways illuminates the themes of all of Keats's work (and his life).
On his deathbed, Keats requested that he be buried beneath a tombstone without a name, and with the epitaph: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." Campion certainly respects that wish, conjuring him in a way that is never grandiose nor "romantic" in the sentimental sense. She is content to present the inexplicable mystery of the outpouring of such deeply influential and resonant work from one so young, and let us take away what we will. The "written on water" image, though not specifically referenced in the film, completes the circle opened by Keats's pond metaphor.
Campion has picked a talented cast to assist her. Ben Whishaw brings Keats to life with a combination of deeply felt sorrow (he lost both his mother - at age 10 - and his brother Tom to the slow, inexorable ravages of tuberculosis, from which he also died) and a sensitivity to beauty and emotion that is liberating and ennobling at the same time that it is almost painful. Whishaw never tries to do too much, to reveal too much, and is content to leave us with the contradictions, the inconsistencies and conflicts, the mixture of passion and despair that Keats makes both archetypal and uniquely personal in his poetry.
Abbie Cornish creates an interesting portrait of Fanny Brawne, as a kindred spirit to Keats, but one related both to part of his nature which he longs to express, as well as parts he fears and flees. She does so with great simplicity, with tenderness and emotion, but never forgetting that the girl she is portraying is just leaving her adolescence behind and facing the period expectations of a "good marriage" and a conventional adult life. Campion's script and direction give us plenty of time to reflect on the anguished complexity of the various dictates of conscience and society, aspiration and desire that impinge on this simple relationship between two young adults.
The supporting cast are strong as well - most notably John Schnieder as Brown, Keats' close friend, biographer, and preserver of much of his best late poetry. Schneider brings all the nuances of Brown's relationship with Keats - his interdependence, his admiration (perhaps tinged with envy), his dedication and loyalty, his jealousy - to the story, as another of the currents informing and shaping Keats' sensibility. Kerry Fox as Fanny's mother represents the period concerns - for her daughter's security in the world where independent women were an undesirable anomaly - as well as a personal care for and understanding of the unique situation that Fanny's relationship with Keats created.
As I've said above, the camera-work is very fine. Cinematographer Greig Fraser and Campion have composed each shot with unassuming but meticulous attention to detail. Having worked together on several previous projects, their melded vision builds a film that is as rich in visual imagery and detail as it is in narrative and dialogue - a suitable analog for Keats' s own work.
Campion - whose work spans a gamut from her Academy Award-winning The Piano to Indie hit Holy Smoke (which saw Kate Winslet nominated for her first Oscar) to the 2008 thriller In the Cut shows her best stuff here, albeit in a very restrained and elegant way that won't produce fireworks. The heart of this film -as the heart of Keats's poetry - is a glowing ember, nearly hidden in the ashes, rather than a firework. It requires of the viewer attention, imagination and surrender. Because it does ask a lot of viewers, it probably won't find a wide audience, but it is an exceptional film, thoughtful, provocative, melancholy and uplifting (again, not unlike Keats's own work), that well-rewards the viewer who is willing to immerse him/her self in it and simply float.
That's my take on it. What's yours?