It would be difficult to overstate what the poet John Keats has meant to what I’ll laughingly call my life and thought. His poems, his letters, his biography – they’ve all been a major source of inspiration to me and touchstones for what it means to be a writer in the world. There was a time I could recite his lengthy nightingale ode by heart and I think I can still get through at least one of the sonnets with a scotch or two in me. You would think – I thought – that the pleasure of seeing Keats brought to life onscreen would have carried me through just about any movie from beginning to end. But that would be to reckon without Bright Star.
I was too busy to see this when it came briefly to a theater near me but I got it the moment it was out on DVD and sat down to watch it eagerly. What a bore! I started drifting off during the credits – the credits, no kidding! Twenty minutes in, I was appalled. I started skimming and when even that seemed slow, I just fast forwarded to the unbelievably badly mishandled climax. It’s awful, awful stuff. Really, I would have forgiven a lot just to spend a couple of hours with Keats. But not this.
So the question is: how does intolerable sludge like this get the reviews it got? “Masterfully put-together, made with confidence, intelligence and command,” says the Los Angeles Times. “Extraordinary,” says the New Yorker. The director’s “wild vitality makes this movie romantic in every possible sense of the word,” says the New York Times. Every possible sense, perhaps, except the ones in the dictionary.
One can only guess where such dribbling nonsense comes from, of course, so here’s my guess. Bright Star is a snoozer but it’s a sententious feminist snoozer. Director Jane Campion – who I confess I’ve always felt was overrated by leftist critics on account of the leaden, finger-wagging feminism of her films – is telling the story not of Keats here, but of Fanny Brawne, the woman he loved. But why? Keats was a great poet, a great man and, as he said of Wordsworth, a great spirit. The story of his death from tuberculosis at 25, convinced he was a failure when he had already written some of the greatest poetry the English-speaking world has ever known, is heart-wrenching. His courage and grace as a human being inspired almost everyone who came in contact with him. Fanny Brawne was… you know, some girl he liked. Campion’s grim insistence we find her not only interesting but as interesting as the man in her life is as off-putting as it is unsuccessful. And the sewing – oh merciful heavens, the sewing… Campion is telling us that women have their creativity too and it will find its way even when repressed by blaggablaggablaggablagga. Sew what?
The critics aren’t stupid. They’re just ideological and dishonest. They hear what Campion’s saying and they declare it gives an absolutely motionless piece of scenery emotional power. It doesn’t. Flick stinks.