A sweet unrest: Jane Campion recreates love affair between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Jane Campion’s Bright Star—opening Sept. 18 from Bob Berney’s new company, Apparition—is named for a poem written by John Keats, one of the British Romantic poets. His “bright star” was Fanny Brawne, an 18-year-old neighbor. Through the story of their brief romance, Campion revisits the subject she’s spent her career exploring: why women try to fit themselves into that narrow slot carved out for them in a patriarchal world—and what happens when they reject it.

Campion’s screenplay is not an invention. It’s based on several sources, including the poet’s letters to Fanny, which she preserved. Keats, a consumptive, died at 25, before they could marry. He did not save Fanny’s letters to him.

Romance is never a simple matter for the New Zealand-born filmmaker: It’s fraught with peril for her female characters, and Fanny (Abbie Cornish), from whose point of view events unfold, is no exception. The implicit irony of Bright Star is that Keats (Ben Whishaw) and the other Romantics were not romantic. The appellation is a misnomer, invented by the Victorians, for artists who rejected the ideals of the Enlightenment and celebrated intuition over reason. The explicit irony is that Keats was so obviously conflicted over his love for a woman who resolutely followed the dictates of her heart. “Keats laughed at his friends and the way they felt about their women,” Campion says, in an interview at the New York City office of her distributor. “He thought women distorted their view and disrupted their philosophy. I think it was a shock to him to fall in love.”

Campion, one of the most celebrated female writer-directors in the world—she’s won two Palme d’Or awards and an Oscar, among half a dozen other prestigious prizes—is philosophical about her return to feature filmmaking after a six-year hiatus. Her last movie, In the Cut, was released in 2003. “That period of time I had off,” she recalls, “I recreated myself as a born-again classicist. I discovered Robert Bresson.” Campion watched Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped and Mouchette, but hasn’t quite worked up the courage to see Au Hazard Balthazar. “I also think I got pretty sick of director’s signatures, fancy shots and the director leading the thinking or the ideas,” she ruminates. “Bresson’s films are very simple. He pretty much disappears. It’s a kind of trust that the material is going to do what it needs to do.” Bright Star’s stylistic simplicity, Campion says, reflects Bresson’s influence on her. The film was shot with a small budget, on location in Bedfordshire, England.

Between 2004 and 2008, Campion made a few shorts for the U.N., where she met her DP, Greig Fraser. She served as a script advisor on Cate Shortland’s Somersault, which starred Abbie Cornish, and was an executive producer of the documentary Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story (directed by Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim). She also read Andrew Motion’s Keats, A Biography (Farrar, Strauss, 1998), which led her to re-read the poet’s work and his letters.

“I’m not a natural poetry lover,” Campion admits. “I studied poetry partly through this project and I needed persistence in order to get through it. I was richly rewarded. Keats had this concept of ‘negative capability’—the capacity to stand in the mystery without reaching out to reason. I think poetry is a kind of world for that.”

The filmmaker was initially inspired by the story of first love, and then by the triangle of desire and envy, depicted in the movie, which Fanny weathered: Keats’ patron, Mr. Brown (Paul Schneider), did everything he could to discredit Fanny and end the romance.

Campion says she thought of Brown as an “oaf”: “I was curious about whether Brown loved Fanny. Probably a part of him wanted her attention.” The filmmaker’s conception of that triangle is supported by Keats’ letters to Brown and to Fanny. “Keats was very private about his relationship with Fanny because people didn’t approve of it,” Campion says, “including, at first, Fanny’s mother.”

Fanny’s relative youth, and the fact that Keats was penniless, made marriage improbable. “People didn’t know Fanny the way he knew her,” Campion explains, “and Fanny, from everything you can understand about her, from the letters that she wrote to Keats later, was not one to try and ingratiate herself to anybody. She felt very much the exclusion that Brown showed her.”

Campion, whose films are all centered on a female protagonist, never set out to make a biopic of Keats. Her interest was always in Fanny. “One of the reasons I wanted to do the story,” the writer-director notes, “was that after Keats died, Fanny was seen walking the heath in Hampstead for about three years wearing widow’s black, even though she wasn’t married. I found that such a haunting idea.”

Keats died in Rome, where he went to escape England’s winter. “There are the letters to Brown at the end where Keats talks about how he is plagued by visions of Fanny—continually approaching and continually receding,” Campion says. “Keats was incredibly suspicious of romance. If Fanny hadn’t been Fanny, the affair wouldn’t have happened.”

Bright Star, Campion’s seventh feature, marks her first collaboration with Cornish (Stop-Loss), Ben Whishaw (I’m Not There) and Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl), as well as several members of her principal crew, including composer Mark Bradshaw. One notable exception is Kerry Fox, who portrays Mrs. Brawne, Fanny’s mother. She played author Janet Frame in Campion’s second film, An Angel at My Table (1990). Producer Jan Chapman has been with Campion since The Piano (1993); she also produced Holy Smoke (1999), the story of a woman who finds happiness in India, only to be undermined by her family. The talented production and costume designer Janet Patterson has made four films with Campion; she was nominated for Academy Awards for costume design on The Piano and Campion’s A Portrait of a Lady (1996).

Campion credits Cornish with articulating Fanny’s quality of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds in her love affair with Keats. “Abbie, like Fanny, is not someone who puts a lot of store in what people think of her,” Campion says, “which is unusual for women. I think she gives Fanny an original quality, which comes from her capacity to stand aside or apart.”

Asked about her direction of the other actors, Campion replies: “I really didn’t feel that I was leading anybody with this film. I was trying to do my job and serve the story—obviously, as I felt it. My job was to bring a presence to these historical personalities and then to get out of the way.”

One unusual directorial decision on Bright Star was to have Keats’ poems heard as narration. “Poetry is like an object that you can constantly turn around in your mind,” Campion reflects. “It’s a garden you can keep returning to. It allows you to have this really close relationship to people hundreds of years apart.”

When asked about her obvious commitment to consistently complex portraits of feminine sexuality, Campion smiles. “How could the others do it,” she argues, “when most of them are guys? I think guys can be just as sensitive as women—there’s no doubt about that. It’s the sort of subjects that women are more likely to be interested in. And if women were making the choices half of the time, it would be a different world, a better, richer world.”

Campion has spoken to male filmmakers about the inequity. “Guys are embarrassed about it,” she declares. “Everyone is embarrassed by it. Look at the Oscar record, and see what you find.” Down Under, Campion points out, rules correct the gender gap: “One of my good friends on the Film Commission once told me: ‘Feminism swept into the film industry and it had no natural predators.’ In Australia and New Zealand, films are financed through government commissions, and they have a mandate to treat women equally.”

Campion, who turned 55 this year, says she hasn’t “done anything” about aging—she hasn’t dyed her hair or gotten cosmetic surgery. “Post-menopausal life,” she says, and laughs. “I love it. I think my relationship with men has improved enormously.” Campion’s next project reflects her preoccupation with this newfound freedom. “I’m working on Top of the Lake, which is six hours,” she explains. “It’s a mystery story. The texture is interesting—I’m filming in a remote part of New Zealand. The story involves a group of women who have gathered there. They’re all post-menopausal.” Asked where the project stands at the moment, Campion replies: “We’re exploring the narrative now. Shamelessly.”