It seems that me and Jane Campion are just not on the same wavelength. Her movies almost always miss with me, like artified romance novel The Piano or her butchering of The Portrait of a Lady, if they don’t actively enrage me, like In The Cut. This movie didn’t really draw much reaction at all out of me, and as far as I’m concerned, THAT’S the problem this time, but I can see where there might be those who can get into it. If you like a lot of high emotion, love sniffling, and are really into moping.
We begin in Hempstead, England in 1818. Abbie Cornish [of Somersault, here looking like Charlize Theron with dark hair] is Fanny Brawne, sensitive young lass who, at 19, has her own very specific ideas of exactly how everyone should behave, what’s right and wrong, and basically everything about everything in the world—and is not afraid to haughtily lecture everyone she comes into contact with on her views. They go to a nearby place where Keats is staying with fellow poet Brown. Apparently Brown published something making fun of Fanny’s hand-made gowns, which are of her own design. She is quite fashion-forward for 1818, and again, has her own ideas about what clothes should look like. She and Brown are nasty to each other from the start, and it never lets up throughout the movie. She also meets Keats briefly, and becomes interested in him. Sort of.
She buys his book and likes the first line, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever,” perhaps because she seems to relate it to her fashions. The rest she could frankly live without, and tells Keats so, at this party. He also has an ailing brother, who she is professing much concern for. Eventually the brother dies, and weep, weep, everyone’s so upset. Although we don’t know him, only Keats knons him but we don’t have any idea of their relationship, so the whole event unfolds without any emotional involvement. Fanny invites Keats for Christmas, and Brown, as he does here and often [often] throughout the movie, finds some reason why Keats can’t go. He goes anyway.
Fanny goes over to Keats’—he now lives next door—for poetry lessons, which includes him saying such things as “if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree, then it should not come at all.” Perhaps that kind of line does NOT make you roll your eyes, but for me… let’s just say I have a clearer picture of my theater’s overhead heating and cooling ducts than any of the relationships in this movie.
Eventually it becomes clear that Keats really likes her, but won’t woo her because there’s no way he could marry her on his lack of income, and it’s better to just stay out of her way. Her family tells her this, but Fanny won’t hear it, and responds with enough haughtily tearful outbursts to have me write: “Dawson’s Creek of the 19th Century” in my notes. When she is told that Keats is stepping aside so that someone else may adore her she wails “I would not be adored!” Several people try to warn her that she’s only getting in worse [“Attachment is such a difficult thing to undo,” one says sadly], but Fanny considers everyone who isn’t her or Keats to be a dolt who couldn’t possibly understand how very deep and true her feelings are, and soon she’s either haughtily superior to those around her, mooning with Keats, or having another go at the tearful outburst. Among the many emotions Campion hopes to elicit in her audience, I doubt the desire to kick Fanny square in the face is included.
Another reaction I suspect she didn’t intend to arouse is the feeling of “Christ, is this douche going to get sick and die here, or what?” Yes, this movie just trudged forward with such slow, steady momentum from incident to incident to incident that long was I in love with the idea of Keats’ easeful death. Eventually he gets tuberculosis and starts coughing blood, leading Fanny’s mother to relent in her permissiveness toward the relationship, and Fanny to get a whole new area of moral superiority to hold over others in whether they are desperate enough to keep Keats alive as long as possible. Eventually he dies, Fanny cries, and it’s over.
My primary problem with this film is that the relationship never came to life for me. It was just completely inert, and I didn’t sense any spark between the two leads whatsoever. They moon, they kiss, they hug, but I never had a sense of real connection, which can make the movie seem extremely long, as that’s pretty much all there is to the movie. I can imagine how one might get into it, and perhaps if it’s working for you, it would be easy to be swept away on its low-plot mooniness. Contrast this to The Lover, also about a very ill-advised but meaningful relationship, which was suffused with aching emotion and blissful reveries. But that film put its heroine more in the context of her youth, portraying her as a young woman being swept away, her immaturity blinding her to how she might be hurt. But the point of view here is that Fanny is the only one in town with her priorities straight, with the courage to follow her heart over her head, etc., without much sense that she is being foolish and young.
But I’m willing to concede that a lot of my problem here may be my issues with Campion in general. To me she comes across primarily as a feminist filmmaker, due to the strong gender-relations content in her films, but her feminism is the kind that should be sold at Barnes & Noble in a gift basket with some herbal tea, chocolate-covered cherries, some aromatherapy oils and a small how-to embroidery kit. It’s that “women are great, girls are awesome” attitude that seems to exist in the absence of any deeper thought or analysis [except that, by extension, men and boys are pretty horrible—unless, of course, they have been converted into women with penises], and comes suffused in a tendentious attitude of “if you don’t love my movie, it’s because YOU ARE NOT SOCIALLY ENLIGHTENED.” This comes across strongly here in the utter lack of criticism for Fanny, as well as NUMEROUS shots of an adorable red-headed girl doing adorable things. It’s a virtual repeat of her loving admiration of young Anna Paquin in The Piano, and how very sweet and adorable and guileless she is. Girl power! I could only hope there would be a coffee-table book of these scenes on heavy, acid-free paper that I could put out in my beach house next to a tiny vase of fresh-cut daisies!
However, I will tell you that the friend I attended it with—much more acquainted with Keats’ biography and work than I am—liked the film very much and has grown to admire it more since he saw it. He saw in it that everyone touched by Keats becomes a better person through their association with him, including Fanny, who I, by contrast, saw almost no development in—except that she did start to tone down her hideous outfits. He was also much more convinced by their relationship and the ferocity of their feelings. So… it is possible to get in to this.
Nevertheless, I don’t think anything about this film is crucial, it doesn’t bring a great deal of new insights to Keats’ life or work, so you could see and it possibly enjoy it or miss it and still live a full and complete life. Sorry to be a party pooper.
If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t have, but it’s your life.