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The passionate romance of poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne - one of English literature's greatest (and perhaps least-known) love stories - plays out in exquisite detail in the new film by Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion.
It begins in 1818 when 23-year-old struggling poet John Keats moves into a house near Hampstead Heath in North London. His next-door neighbor is a captivating, outspoken 18-year-old: Fanny Brawne. She does not think much of literature and he considers her as shallow; but she is curious and as they spend time together a powerful and undeniable love grows.
They express their love in letters and poems; but their story ends in tragedy with Keats' death, two years later, from tuberculosis.
New Zealand-born filmmaker Jane Campion, whose 1994 romantic drama "The Piano" won three Academy Awards, says she fell in love with the story …and ideal …of this relationship.
"For me it really was one of the most powerful love stories in history and I think, anecdotally, it is extraordinary because we have the love letters. These aren't ordinary love letters. They are probably some of the most passionate ever written and ever likely to be written given what is happening to our communication," she said. "I felt really moved by the courage of these two extremely young people dealing with such momentous things like their first love and also a huge loss right at the same time. It just opened my heart up completely. The odd thing is that when you begin you think 'oh, look at them. They're falling in love. Isn't that cute? It's so innocent.' You're kind of looking down on them thinking 'ha ha;' but then they go to this incredibly courageous place."
Campion found her embodiment of Keats in young English stage and screen actor Ben Whishaw.
"Jane said that she wanted me to become our expert on Keats so that if anybody needed a question answered I could be the one to do that. So I read everything I could get my hands on. I read about four different biographies. I read all of his letters, all of his poetry [and] analysis of his writing. I visited his house. I walked along Hampstead Heath. I tried to just surround myself with him as much as possible," he said.
Whishaw admits to knowing little about Keats other than a few lines of poetry before he took on the role; and the same goes for Australian actress Abbie Cornish, who co-stars as Fanny Brawne.
"I didn't know much about Keats or his work at all and so as soon as I read the film I jumped online and started reading his poems because the poems that were in the film were so beautiful and drew me in so much I was keen to read more," she said. "In rehearsals a couple of times we had poetry readings where we would all sit around, you know, and read 'Ode To A Nightingale' and then sit and discuss it for a couple of hours over a glass of wine and some cheese. It was just really a beautiful way to open up into the world of Keats."
Brawne is credited with inspiring some of Keats' most passionate poetry; but Cornish is hesitant to describe her as his 'muse.' "I didn't feel like I was playing a muse. I felt like I was playing Fanny Brawne, an 18-year-old girl that falls in love with Keats," he said.
However, Whishaw has no doubt about her influence.
"All the poems that we remember now as his greatest he wrote when he was in love with her. He may not have written them to her; they may not all be about love or romance or whatever, but I think she was his muse, definitely. Loving her opened him up in some way," she said.
"Bright Star," filmed on location in England and Rome (where Keats died in 1821), also features American actor Paul Schneider as the poet's fellow writer and best friend, Charles Armitage Brown. The evocative, romantic musical score is by Australian composer Mark Bradshaw.