As a fledgling director in Australia in the Eighties, Jane Campion flirted with the idea of making pornographic movies for women. Instead, in a series of largely art-house films, she has probed the dangers of desire and the lives of resilient, occasionally mad heroines chafing at their constrained circumstances. In A Girl’s Own Story (1984), schoolgirls practice kissing; in Sweetie (1989), an emotionally disturbed young woman is forever about to erupt. Her most widely known work, The Piano (1993), which won her an Oscar for best screenplay, is fueled by erotic self-discovery, as is In the Cut, her uneven thriller from 2003.
But Campion’s latest film is as restrained as they get—and to her mind, all the more alluring for it. Bright Star tells the story of poet John Keats’s last two and a half years, when he fell in love with seamstress Fanny Brawne, literally the girl next door, a would-be fashionista who inspired him to write some of his greatest poems. Visually arresting, the film is a portrait of ardor thwarted by class, illness and death—Keats died at 25—seen through the eyes of the feisty Brawne, who was 18 when she met him.
“I found it fascinating that it was so chaste. That’s what gives it a lot of haunting strength and what makes it unique,” says the statuesque Campion, 55, over tea at New York’s Mercer hotel, her long, gray-flecked blond hair swept dramatically to one side. “I think the whole tension about romanticism is the way it builds and builds, and the moment it’s consummated, the tension’s over. And in this story the relationship never was consummated.”
Of course, the tale’s real sensuality, says Campion, derives from Keats’s poetry and the letters he wrote to Brawne. “How sexy would it be to be the intimate of a poet like Keats, who wasn’t just seducing you but telling you the truth as he knew it?” wonders the director, whose conversation—blunt, frank, literate—is punctuated by a ready, sometimes edgy laugh. “He’d say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about women. I’m confused by my feelings.’ Sometimes he’d merely scribble notes that said ‘Don’t forget to show yourself in the garden. I need to see you’ or ‘Give me something to put under my pillow tonight.’ It’s the kind of first love that everybody dreams of but very few of us actually have.”
Ironically, it was Campion’s aversion to poetry and need to know why it made her feel “inadequate” that led her to Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography of Keats. She read the book during the four-year break she took from filmmaking, beginning in 2003, to steep herself in mothering her daughter, Alice, now 15, and recalls being suddenly struck halfway through by what she calls “the innocence and purity” of the Keats-Brawne liaison, by the way it quickly moved from playful, lighthearted banter to the sobering contemplation of “all the big questions.” Despite Keats’s youth, Campion says, “he’d already realized more or less the point of being here—to understand consciousness—and in a way their love affair and his dying young and how he came to write his best poems is almost everything you need to know about living that’s good.”