This charming period drama is the perfect antidote to modern life. Lyrical and sedately paced, it’s a beautiful if feather-light elegy to Regency manners and dress and to the poetry of the Romantics. Telling the true story of the love affair between talented but penniless Romantic poet John Keats and wealthy but socially awkward seamstress Fanny it’s crammed with elegant costumes, sparkling dialogue and bewitching performances.
Written and directed by Jane Campion, best known for 1993’s “The Piano”, this has a similar melancholic tone as her more famous work, managing to stretch a thin and rather basic plot into something deceptively well layered, combining a heart-wrenching love story, social commentary, intriguing historical details and dazzlingly beautiful poetical extracts, including a mesmerising reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” over the end credits, which admittedly makes it impossible to read any of the names. Abbie Cornish is marvellous as Miss Brawne, handling the transition from level-headed businesswoman to hopelessly obsessed lover with both realism and pathos. Ben Whisahw is suitably otherworldly and distracted as Keats himself, capturing the fragility of the young poet. There are also surprising turns from Thomas Sangster and Edie Martin as the two younger Brawne siblings, neatly summing up attitudes to childhood and responsibility: Martin has a endearingly childish playfulness about her, while Sangster is perpetually at that transitional point between boy and man lurking in the background as a chaperone. Paul Schnieder adds a touch of ambiguity as the rude but practical Charles Armitage Brown, while Kerry Fox is suitably sensible as Fanny’s mother. In one particularly charming scene, for example, Fanny, parted from Keats, has filled her bedroom with butterflies caught by her siblings and is wallowing in her self-created dream-world; Mrs Brawne is thoroughly perplexed by her daughter’s actions and when Fanny warns her not to step on one of the butterflies, her reaction is simply, “well move it.” There’s a wonderful sense of understated realism in the clash of personalities.
It looks and sounds lovely, and though it might not be the most novel or innovative film to be released this year, it’s certainly an enjoyably tragic portrait of Regency life and proof that literature can still provide a fascinating story.