Jane Campion's Ode To Keats' Romantic Love Though her new film Bright Star chronicles the love story of British Romantic poet John Keats and 18-year-old Fanny Brawne, Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion says she wasn't always a fan of poetry.
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Jane Campion's Ode To Keats' Romantic Love

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Jane Campion's Ode To Keats' Romantic Love

Jane Campion's Ode To Keats' Romantic Love

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block with some Romantic - capital R, poetry - to end the week.

(Soundbite of movie, “Bright Star”)

Mr. BEN WHISHAW (Actor): (As John Keats) I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful, a fairy's child. Her hair was long, her foot was light and her eyes were wild.

BLOCK: That's Ben Whishaw as the poet John Keats in the new movie “Bright Star,” directed by Jane Campion. It's the story of the brief, intense love between Keats and 18-year-old Fanny Brawne, played in the film by Abbie Cornish.

(Soundbite of movie, “Bright Star”)

Ms. ABBIE CORNISH (Actress): (As Fanny Brawne) I still don't know how to work out a poem.

Mr. WHISHAW: (As Keats) A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is a experience beyond thought.

BLOCK: Director Jane Campion's earlier films include “The Piano” and “An Angel at My Table.” She joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JANE CAMPION (Director, “Bright Star”): Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And what do you think it is about early 19th century poetry, and particularly, John Keats that captured you, that's holding you in its thrall?

Ms. CAMPION: I have to admit that I had a lot of problems with poetry.

BLOCK: Aha, the confession.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah, I used to feel kind of stupid that I didn't understand it properly, or frustrated or kind of irritated with it, and I think turning 50, I thought, oh, it's time I got over it, you know? It's time I sort of tried to make more effort. And I read a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion, and partway through that book, Keats met Fanny Brawne, and I had no idea of this true story, this love affair and how pure and intense it was and that the love letters existed. So it made you feel so intimate, I mean, right in the middle of what they were experiencing themselves. And I fell in love with the guy, you know? He's so funny and honest and thoughtful. And then I went on to the poems, and it was quite a journey for me.

BLOCK: Hmm. So you've really had the same problem with poetry that Fanny Brawne has in the movie. She tells him outright: I don't know what all this poetry business is about. She says that more elegantly than that.

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah, no, yes, I did. And, I mean, I think poetry does need to be met to some extent, especially, I guess, 19th century poetry, and for me, it's just been so worth the effort. It's like I'm planting a garden in my head.

BLOCK: Really?

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Do you have to keep nourishing it?

Ms. CAMPION: Watering it? Yeah. Well, you know, it grows pretty much by itself. You can just go and revisit it.

BLOCK: We feel the intensity of the connection between John Keats and Fanny Brawne, even though their relationship is very chaste throughout the movie, and at one point, John Keats has come to live in one-half of the Brawne family home. He's staying in a room on the opposite side of the wall from Fanny, and there's a scene where her cheek is pressed against the wall; his hand is pressed on the other side. It's really just an electric charge that you can feel going through that wall right then.

Ms. CAMPION: It did occur to me that these two, under the radar, could have been extremely close, like on each side of a wall and had a capacity to be together and around each other, which would have been incredibly unusual at that time.

BLOCK: Was part of the appeal of telling this story sort of what you wouldn't show? I mean, there are no bodices being unlaced, and there's a lot of discretion, which I'm sure is very deliberate.

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah, I think the story touches me because of the restraint that was placed upon them. They got engaged finally, but they never did get married. Keats never came back from Italy. And I think it was sort of interesting to me how intense and in love these two could be without, well, having sex, I guess. Really, the connection between people is, you know, a heart one in a way or identity one, where they sort of became entwined together. I mean, sort of -exactly the sort of thing that every therapist would tell you not to do, but it seems irresistible when, you know, you first meet someone that you feel completely open and, you know, adoring towards.

BLOCK: You know, I suppose the danger of a film about a Romantic poet would be just overdoing the romanticism, the syrupy quality that could really take over, right?

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah, no, I think it is a delicate road to walk, and I think that was the reason for my restraint. I didn't think it needed any elaborating. We have two beautiful actors, Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, and gorgeous gardens and heath, and springtime. I mean, spring itself is ridiculously gorgeous in England, you know? We were on the estate, and it was pretty drab when we arrived in winter. And by springtime, I mean, there were tulips that were the size of a small person's head, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAMPION: They were enormous, and it was just gorgeous. So, you know, you didn't need to exaggerate a thing. In fact, you sort of, you know, wanted to pull back and keep things very, very simple, classical.

BLOCK: Take out a few tulips.

Ms. CAMPION: Well, that was a problem for me. When we arrived to shoot on the first day, the Brawne family were leaving to go across to visit the Dokes(ph) and the Browns(ph), and suddenly, all these tulips had come out. We didn't - actually not tulips, but daffodils, and we didn't realize that we were sort of shooting on a daffodil field, it just looked corny, like sort of Disney or chocolate-box kind of thing, and everybody had to help quickly to pull out the daffodils.

BLOCK: Oh, you cut them down?

Ms. CAMPION: Yeah, we did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CAMPION: It's just too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: You know, I come away from this film, wondering if you are now devoted to Romantic poetry, if you'll create a whole sort of audience of lovers of Romantic poetry now. We're going to see John Keats books flying off the shelves.

Ms. CAMPION: I really hope so. It's been such a deep and amazing journey for me, getting close to John Keats, and also I love Shelley and Byron. I mean, the thing about the Romantic poets is that they've got the epitaph of romantic posthumously. They all died really young, and Keats, the youngest of them all. I think they can sound a little flowery when you call them the romantics, but they were romantic really for solid reasons. They were rebels against a class system, the very state and entrenched political system. Keats, for example, didn't go to university. He wasn't a lord. He was the son of a stable people, and I think what they responded to was their own spirits, and that was the Lord for them, and, you know, to me, that seems like great instructions for life.

BLOCK: Well, Jane Campion, thanks so much.

Ms. CAMPION: My pleasure, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Director Jane Campion's new film is called “Bright Star.” To hear more of our conversation, including why Campion wants to talk poetry with Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Claude Van Damme, just go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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