Bright Star, the latest film by Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, chronicles the intense and tragic love story of British Romantic poet John Keats and 18-year-old Fanny Brawne. In some ways, it was an unlikely story for the director to tell.
"I have to admit that I had a lot of problems with poetry," Campion tells Melissa Block. "I used to feel kind of stupid that I didn't understand it properly."
But when she turned 50, the director decided it was time to learn more about verse. She picked up Keats, a biography by Andrew Motion, and was captivated by the "funny and honest and thoughtful" man she encountered.
As she read through the poet's letters, Campion says, she "fell in love with the guy." From the letters, she moved on to Keats' poetry and was hooked. But it was the poet's intense — and chaste — relationship with Brawne that really captivated her imagination.
"Their love letters existed, so it made you feel so intimate — right in the middle of what they were experiencing themselves," she says.
Campion describes the relationship between Keats and Brawne as being "entwined together." At one point, Keats stayed in a room within the Brawne family home; in the film, Campion brings this scenario to life with a scene in which Brawne stands with her cheek pressed against one side of the wall, while Keats holds his hand against the other side.
"I think the story touches me maybe because of the restraint that was placed upon [Keats and Brawne]. They got engaged finally, but they never did get married. ... I think it was interesting to me how intense and in love these two could be without having sex."
Campion says that she was careful not to burden the love story with extraneous romanticism — a task that sometimes required toning down the natural beauty of the British countryside. In one scene, the director found herself shooting amidst a sea of daffodils, but, she says, "it looked corny, sort of Disney." So the crew stopped filming and "everybody had to help pull out the daffodils."
Even if she wound up pulling out flowers during the making of Bright Star, Campion says that learning about Romantic poetry has been like "[planting] a garden in my head."
"It's been such an amazing and incredible journey for me, getting close to John Keats and also Shelley and Byron," she says. "I think what they responded to was their own spirits, and that was the Lord for them. And to me that seems like great instructions for life."