This epitomizes the danger of a writer directing her own screenplay. Jane Campion fell in love with her words and scenes, and couldn’t bring herself to bring this in at 90 minutes (which is all the story deserves). As a result, this stumbles along for so long that one loses the context.
The story of the love between doomed 23-year-old romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his next-door neighbor 18-year-old Fanny Brawne (Abby Cornish) circa 1818-20, Campion tells us very little about either—except that they fall in love. It is almost unbelievable that you can sit through this film for a minute under two hours and come away not knowing what it was that Keats was working so feverishly on with his friend, Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider; It could be “Otho the Great,” for which Brown claims he gave “the fable, characters and dramatic conduct of a tragedy, and [Keats] was to embody it into poetry”), why Brown has such an intense dislike of Fanny, what happened to Fanny’s father, or what it is that supports Fanny’s family. Campion keeps everything a secret. The family is shown as Fanny, her brother Samuel (Thomas Brodie Sangster), sister Margaret (Edie Martin) and mother, Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox, in an award-deserving performance). Where’s Mr. Brawne? In two hours, Campion gives us not a clue about any of these people. Oh, that is, except that Fanny and Keats are in love. There’s really no explanation for that either, because they are rarely together alone.
But, boy, does she love to have her actors spout poetry. Campion admits she worked hard to have as much poetry in the film as possible but Keats wrote these things as either individual poems or as letters to Fanny. They were not spoken dialogue between the two. Campion would have been better advised to cut some of the poetry, which some might love but most will find too much, and let the audience in on some facts on why they lived the way they did and what made each of them tick.
But, to be fair to Campion, while she says she tried to be true to the facts, she had to recreate a lot of this. While Fanny kept all of Keats’ letters, Keats destroyed all of Fanny’s so Campion was left to recreate Fanny out of what Keats wrote to her, a difficult task. And Brown, in his biography of Keats, never mentions Fanny.
The film is gorgeously photographed by D.O.P. Greig Fraser. In addition to the exceptional lighting of many of the scenes, he also participated in choosing the locations, which emphasized the romanticism of the film. In fact, for me, other than looking at the deliciously beautiful Cornish, of whom I’ve been an admirer since the salacious “Somersault” (2004), the best part of the film is the photography and scenes, some of which looked to me like impressionist paintings. Production designer Janet Patterson deserves kudos for the attention to detail in recreating the Regency period, which reflects how bare things were.
Spoiler Alert: Campion also fails to accurately disclose what happened to Fanny, actually misleading the audience to believe that she spent the rest of her life in mourning, wandering through the forest thinking of Keats. In fact, she married in 1833, 12 years after Keats’ death, and had two children, although she apparently never took off the ring Keats gave her.
I hesitate to call this a chick flick but it is most likely to appeal to highly romantic females. Men are likely to squirm. If it came in at ninety minutes, though, this would be a lot more compelling, even for men.