“He was curious what it is to be human and have imagination, and he realized his consciousness. You don’t always achieve that level in a full lifetime,” said Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion (“The Piano”) to indieWIRE earlier this Summer. Campion was referring to early 19th century English poet, John Keats, whose secret love affair with outspoken fashion student Fanny Brawne, is the nexus of her latest feature, “Bright Star,” which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week and opens theatrically Friday. “People’s life expectations weren’t long, and people then realized that life and death were more quick,” Campion added.
Campion’s interest in the young couple evolved after reading Andrew Motion’s book on Keats and became “incredibly moved” by their story of passionate devotion in an era when openly expressing love was frowned upon, especially between young people of different social strata.
“Something about the purity of it was unparalleled,” said Campion describing their relationship. “Their affection for each other was documented through his love letters. It was quite astonishing [for me] to be reading them and then feeling very intimate with the story.”
And Campion took quite a shine to Keats’ love Fanny Brawne, played in “Bright Star” by Australian actress Abbie Cornish. “She was quite assertive in a very quiet way. She asserted her love. Fanny grew up in what at the time would have been an unusual house – there was no father. She assumed the role of leader of the house in her own way. To even receive those letters at that time is a hint at her strong and independent mindedness. For that time, both Keats (played by Ben Whishaw – “Brideshead Revisited”) and Brawne were sort of love rebels. [But] they also didn’t know about how love can lead to disaster.”
Told principally through the point-of-view of the young Fanny Brawne, the unlikely pair was not initially drawn together. He thought of her as a superficial style-maven (perhaps a modern-day equivalent of a hipster), and she was unimpressed by literature generally.
When Keats’s younger brother grew ill, however, the two came together as Keats became touched by Fanny’s efforts to help. The two decided that he would then teach her about poetry. The pair’s affections blossomed and by the time Keats’s possessive best friend Brown (Paul Schneider) and her mother (Kerry Fox) realized what was materializing, the relationship had reached an unstoppable momentum. “I have a feeling as if I were dissolving,” Keats wrote to her in lone letter.
“I thought of it as an updated ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story, and Keats alluded to that as well,” said Campion. “What touches me about Keats is that he really stands up for matters of the heart.”
The project, Campion claimed, was not something she had earnestly sought, in fact if anything quite the opposite. But the story of the lovers, who historians are unsure if their love was ever consummated, compelled her to explore the story further.
“I read Andrew Motion’s book in 2001 only out of general interest,” said Campion who continued, “I was saying at the time, ‘please don’t be interested in this.'” The director herself became more interested in poetry during this period and joined a class in Australia, and even joined a class in the Hampstead area of London during production of “Bright Star.” “We went to The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, which was there when Keats was living there,” explained Campion. “When you’re writing a character, I really love to be able to ground in something I know. It’s so easy to get lost or confused.”
For the Fanny Brawne character, Campion looked to her own 13 year-old daughter’s personality as an inspiration for Brawne’s independent and unconventionally expressive personality. “I have a 13 year old daughter who is similar to Fanny. She’s very passionate and caring but also has moments of fury.” Campion went on to say her daughter traveled to London during the shoot and became something of a proponent for the project. “She’s seen it many times and is like a machine – just crying. She’s told me she loves it for its honesty and simplicity.”
Campion also gave praise to her leads that she said were ultimately perfect fits as the young couple. “When you have two beautiful young actors as these, you want to make sure they [reflect] the qualities of the people they’re portraying. Ben [Whishaw] is a Keats. He has that quality about him. He’s not particularly chatty, but he’s very kind. He knows if you’ve had a rough day and he’ll come up and check in on you. Abbie [Cornish] is a very strong young woman with unusually clear ideas of who she is and what she wants to do.”
To fit in with the social class in England at the time, both characters had to adapt their accents, which Cornish had a bit more of a challenge in crafting due to her background. “They both had to accents that is basically [upper class prep school] Eton, but she naturally has a very strong Australian accent. But she has an extremely good ear,” said Campion, adding, “She was a rapper, so she could absorb it.”