At one point in Jane Campion's new biopic Bright Star, John Keats starts spouting his famous definition of the "poetical Character": "A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea, and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all of God's Creatures." This moment simultaneously illustrates the film's narrative strategy and its most significant flaw. Like so many biopics, Bright Star consists of repurposed quotations. Characters quote their letters, their poems, their memoirs; written language and speech become one. Published work (or work produced for very different audiences) turns out to be grounded in, yet apparently removable from, everyday encounters. John Keats and Fanny Brawne even recite Keats' poems to each other, turning a poem like "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" into a prewritten substitute for lovers' conversation. It's not surprising that such omnipresent quotation has become an essential convention in biopics devoted to authors: the most interesting thing an author can do, after all, is write, but that's the least interesting thing imaginable for an audience to watch. If dramatizing the process turns out to be pretty much impossible, then, the least you can do is flaunt the product. In a metafictional moment from the musical 1776, the playwright Peter Stone notes the pitfalls of this approach:
ADAMS: Dammit, Franklin, you make us sound treasonous!
FRANKLIN: Do I? Treason: "Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers."
ADAMS: I have more to do than stand here listening to you quote yourself.
FRANKLIN: No, that was a new one!
Inventing "new ones" when the author is John Keats may well have been a daunting challenge. However, the film's primary flaw may well be that the author is John Keats. Never mind whether or not Keats had a pronounced "identity"--to what extent does he hold the screen as a dramatic figure, apart from his early death and his poetic talents? Wordsworth and Coleridge both had their youthful adventures and their intriguing character flaws; Byron and Shelley, of course, had scandalous private lives; Blake...well, Blake was on the eccentric side. Of the Romantic Big Six, Keats appears to have been the nicest and most humane. This was good for his friends, but not so good for anyone trying to produce a conventional biopic. All of the film's conflicts come from outside, in the combined form of Charles Armitage Brown (Keats' close friend) and money troubles. But as a character, Keats himself proves elusive. The words "fill" in for him, as it were.
The John Keats Problem may explain why the film turns out to be so formless. It opens with Fanny Brawne encountering Keats; it closes when he dies. We have no sense of Fanny Brawne's existence before she meets (and is transformed?) by Keats, let alone of her existence afterwards. At the end, the film describes her long mourning for Keats, but neglects to mention that she did, in fact, eventually marry and have children. Campion keeps trying to structure the film by gesturing to potential oppositions and conflicts: Fanny's sewing (which bookends the film) vs. Keats' poetry, male vs. female love, female domesticity vs. male artistry, money vs. passion, etc. Yet none of these conflicts ever emerges fully into the light. There's no framework, for example, for the most obvious opposition, that between stitching and writing: are we to evaluate Fanny's fashion design as equal to, lesser than, superior to Keats' creations? Is there a feminist critique of gendered forms of creativity? What should we make of Fanny's boast that her work, at least, will bring in some cash? As Ellen Moody very accurately notes, Fanny "has no interest but loving Keats and silently sewing"--is this meant to be a factual report (the film is, in fact, pretty accurate when it comes to details), an idealized vision of the poet's beloved, an attempt to render the beloved as the poet sees her, a feminist critique of a woman's destiny...? Campion's The Piano had its own problems, but it at least managed to be reasonably coherent. (Whether or not you liked what it was coherent about, of course, was a different matter.)