The latest movie about the English poet John Keats, "Bright Star," is a enticing period piece, true to its genre and ambiance, with superb acting -- but woefully boring in places and lacking in imaginative outlet for Keats' best work.
Keats wrote poems for only the last three years of his short life, which ended at the age of 25 in 1821 because of tuberculosis, which had felled both his mother and brother Tom.
Keats had a sad temperament with bouts of joy, much like many poets of his time. Had he lived another 20 or 30 years, his poetry could've possibly rivaled Shakespeare's in rich, complex verse. Even so, some of Keats' poems are magestic, though sometimes laced with strained or staid wording, as this line from Endymion: "... and such are daffodils, With the green world they live in" or this contrived line later in the poem: "An endless fountain of immortal drink, Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink."
The two things that primarily fell flat in "Bright Star" were the platonic/romantic relationship with his muse, Fanny Brawne, and the film's lack of imaginative flights from Keats' best poetry. Brawne is a baffling and sometimes daffy muse who doesn't really get poetry and doesn't really DO anything. She is pretty and free-spirited and witty, but also shallow. She does not come across as nearly Keat's equal in sense of life and depth of soul, which would be a true inspiration for any poet. (If this were true in real life, perhaps it would explain Keats' inability to construct truly great and evocative verses consistently. Perhaps he needed another 10 years of living through anguish, ecstasy, wonder and self-understanding to truly glean his teeming brain.)
As for the lack of imaginative flights, the film does almost nothing with Keats' best poem (not published in his lifetime): "When I have fears that I may cease to be." Here is the poem:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
In the film, Keats is with Fanny and some of her family at a table when a child asks him for a poem. He sits in reverie for a moment and then recites the first six lines of the above exquisite poem. He then stops and apologizes that he cannot finish. We, the informed audience, are supposed to know the pain he feels and understand his reticence (or, perhaps, he himself doesn't want to go down that dark tunnel yet). In either case, we are not allowed to feel the enduring pain he felt in full force that he may not live long enough to feel the "faery power of unreflecting love" or to glean his teeming brain.
Why could the film-makers not have shown us a particularly harrowing moment in Keats' diseased life, shown us the man surrounded by his beloved books, shown us the poet staring out his window at the stars, shown us his dreamy thoughts of Fanny, and then unsentimentally given us a voice-over of Keats' poem coming out of him and revealing the true tragedy of his life?
There are moments in the movie in which his poetry is evoked well, but several of his best works like "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and others are not plumbed, or they are not plumbed in proper context, so that you don't FEEL the poet.
I left the theatre after seeing "Bright Star" pretty much feeling as I did after seeing 1994's "Immortal Beloved" about Beethoven: like I'd felt some bond with the man, but feeling like there was much much more that I wanted to feel and know.