Spring is glorious and terrible, especially in the Northeast United States. The first signs of flowers and greenery are so gorgeous and well-deserved after winter that a simple walk outside can feel positively giddy. There’s that vertiginous falling-in-love feeling that happens when the first actual not-cold breeze hits your skin. Then, just as you’ve taken a selfie with your spectacular neighborhood cherry blossoms, the petals flutter to the ground, and it’s over. Here in New York, the sidewalks heat up and reanimate the winter’s dormant dog pee, the city smells like garbage, and we have to wait a whole year to feel the ecstasy again.
If you wish there were a way to bottle the fleeting feeling of spring bliss like I do, I urge you to watch Bright Star, the Jane Campion film from 2009 about John Keats and his love, Fanny Brawne, played by Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.
John Keats was an early 19th-century poet, now famed for being one of the greatest lyric poets in the English language. He was deeply inspired by William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser, and he wrote odes and ballads like “Ode to a Nightingale” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad.” He died young and penniless of tuberculosis at age 25, and his work didn’t become famous until after his death. He fell in love with Fanny Brawne, an accomplished seamstress and nearby neighbor, but because of his financial situation, fragile health, and the general social mores of the Regency era, they couldn’t marry. He secretly gave her an engagement ring that she wore until her death, long after Keats had passed away and she married and had a family of her own (swoon!). It was during their love affair that Keats had his most prolific and inspired writing period, and it’s this three-year stretch — from meeting Brawne until his death — that is captured in the film.
Jane Campion’s hallmark is edgy, groundbreaking direction — she made the erotic thriller In the Cut before Bright Star — so a bonneted, empire-waisted costume drama doesn’t seem to promise the exciting filmmaking she is known for. But this is not a Jane Austen story where somehow everyone manages to get married at the end. Keats and Brawne’s love isn’t almost doomed; it’s actually doomed. All that makes its flame burn all the brighter, especially against the insanely gorgeous natural backdrop of this movie. Natural beauty was one of Keats’ strongest inspirations, and it’s clear that Campion took this to heart. The spring love sequences are some of the closest scenes I’ve seen on film to accurately capturing the sensation of being totally blissed out.
There’s Keats, gangly and tousled, scrambling barefoot up the rough trunk of a blooming apple tree to find a nightingale nest, the prickly bark and branches swaying under his weight until he finds a perch to close his eyes and dream (and get inspiration for one of his masterpieces).
There’s Brawne, reading a missive from Keats in an endless field of bluebells, so overwhelmed by joy that she grabs her little sister, Toots, and plants ferocious kisses all over her forehead.
There’s Brawne again, making her siblings go out and capture butterflies because Keats had written: “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days — three such days with you I could fill with more delight than 50 common years could ever contain.” She lays in her sunny bedroom dizzily re-reading his letters as the insects flutter on her fingers.
And then there’s the first kiss between the lovers, on a moist forest floor, filled with so much sweetness, sensuality, and anticipation that my heart rate goes up every time. The soundtrack is nothing but birdsong, and you can hear the shifting of their bodies on the earth and the touch of their lips.
I can’t remember when I saw this film for the first time, but it quickly became a repeat watch. There’s a quality to this film that I haven’t seen anywhere else and that I have come to crave when seeking a certain feeling. Keats coined a term, “negative capability,” that he used often in his letters. He defined it as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In an interview about the making of the film, Campion says that “negative capability” became a guide to the creative process. You can see how that approach extends from the actors’ performances to the story itself. It’s as if Keats and Brawne are whispering to us from the past: We don’t know how long we have on this Earth, but it’s worth it to express and enjoy as much love and beauty as we possibly can.
Spring doesn’t last forever, not even in the film. There’s grief, longing, and dead butterflies swept into a dustbin. It’s an exquisite, brief time that fades much too soon, but the film reminds us that it’s worth succumbing to the beauty completely.
I don’t know how many people have seen this movie, but by my scientific estimation, it’s not enough. I just went back and read a bunch of reviews and learned that a few critics at the screening in Cannes were huffy because some of the plants depicted were in the wrong season for the story, and some butterflies were species that can’t be found in England. Ignore them. They’re just irritably reaching for fact and reason. Watch this film. Then take off your shoes and go climb a tree.