Film >In the cough
The movie poster for this costume drama from esteemed director Jane Campion – her first feature since 2003’s disastrous Meg Ryan-and-her-nipples vehicle In the Cut – depicts 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats (appropriately rock-star-like Ben Whishaw) in a close, passionate embrace with his lower-class paramour, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). The two are inches away from a soulful kiss, and that’s about as close as Campion allows the two historical lovers to get. Has Lady Jane gone as chaste as the PG rating on Bright Star suggests? You have no idea.
The film follows Keats in the self-pitying aftermath of his roundly dismissed nature-worshipping poem Endymion (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”) as he’s propelled toward bankruptcy and creative ruin. Joining him on the downward spiral is his churlish, overprotective BFF Charles Armitage Brown, who serves as Keats’ transcriber and emotional bodyguard. As Brown, Paul Schneider lights up the screen. A graduate of David Gordon Green’s troupe and now underused on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Schneider is unrecognizable as the third wheel between two people he might secretly be in love with, and delivers an outstanding performance.
Much to Brown’s chagrin, the forthright Brawne storms into the two men’s lives as a pleasantly bizarre muse with a bad reputation but seemingly pure motives. Brawne doesn’t pretend to keep up intellectually or culturally with the exclusive crowd she joins, and is refreshingly unashamed about it.
“I appreciate wit and humor,” she brightly exclaims, only to have Keats shrug off practitioners of those qualities as “dandies.” You just know he’s going to be a ton of fun.
Keats and Brawne fall in love, I suppose, though Keats always seems more interested in Charles Armitage Brown and, conversely, Brown in Brawne, in a pulling-her-hair-on-the-playground kind of way. Campion allows the rest of the film to lazily stroll alongside the lovers, who might steal a kiss here or there, but seem mostly content to melt into each other’s eyes and wallow in manufactured torment. The topic of sex never even comes up. I suppose that would only steal precious time away from their busy schedule of doing nothing.
Eventually Keats does the bloody-cough-into-a-handkerchief routine to signal his imminent demise, which might be, finally, a good reason for the couple to act so melancholic. But Campion decides instead that it’s a proper time to separate them and bog herself down with useless subplots.
In a poem by Lord Byron, Keats’ bitter rival, the author paid snarky tribute to Keats at his death, scoffing at the idea some were peddling that Keats’ bad reviews killed him. “’Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle/Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.” I doubt this review will snuff out anybody, but I would venture to say that a bad film can inflict posthumous damage to a historical figure, and I’m sorry that John Keats continues to suffer.