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A tribute to a quiet genius

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Kerry Fox and Paul Schneider.
Directed: Jane Campion.
Rated PG (mild themes). 119 mins.
Reviewed by Fr Peter Malone MSC

JOHN Keats’ 25-year life was not filled with excitement and adventure as those of his two Romantic contemporaries, Byron and Shelley (the two 1987 films about them, The Haunted Summer and Gothic, certainly illustrate this).

Nor was he as long-lived and influential like the former generation of romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth (whose early career was dramatised in the 2001 Pandaemonium).

This background is by way of introducing Jane Campion’s rather quiet and intimate portrait of Keats’ last years and his love for and engagement to Fanny Brawne.

Apart from a glimpse of Keats’ coffin being carried across the Spanish Steps in Rome (where his room can be visited still), everything takes place on Hampstead Hill near the London of 1819, the woods at the back of the house in a pretty spring and a snow-clad winter but, mainly, interiors. Keats was a poet of interiors, of musings.

Which certainly does not make for a slam-bang action show for the perpetual-texters or the internet surfers. But, it would not be a bad thing for an audience to slow down if it could and simply be with people who lived at a slower pace and had time to feel and reflect.

For those who do go, I hope they don’t make that instant dash for exits as soon as final credits appear as throughout these credits, Ben Whishaw recites Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.

Texts of poems are used throughout and the title comes from the beginning of a sonnet Keats wrote for Fanny.

Jane Campion’s films are varied but they all take on a female perspective. Fanny Brawne and her love for Keats are the principal focus here.

Abbie Cornish gives a vigorously romantic performance, embodying the more liberating attitudes and behaviour in an immediate post-Jane Austen era.

She is down-to-earth, a creative dressmaker who is attracted to the wispy Keats.

He is played by that thinnest of actors, Ben Whishaw, with a melancholy, which Fanny almost drives out of him as he discovers love and affection.

To spark some drama, a great deal of attention is given to Keats’ writing partner Charles Brown (a vigorous performance from Paul Schneider) and Fanny’s not concealed dislike of and disdain for him. Kerry Fox (once in Campion’s An Angel at my Table) plays Fanny’s mother.

This is a very refined film, a picture of gentle passion for Keats and passion taking possession of him for Fanny.

It is a tribute to the quiet genius of Keats’ imagination and love of language.

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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