Jane Campion’s portrait of poet/thinker John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his love affair with designer/seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is at one with storytelling and beautifully crafted verse that’s in no hurry to get to the point.
It’s a costume drama of rare magnificence as Fanny’s constantly changing attire becomes a character in and of itself. Janet Patterson has come up with an exquisite wardrobe for Fanny that magically suits both the biographical back-story and Cornish’s fine physique. Let’s hope Oscar agrees.
Greig Fraser’s long shots of meadows and the heath add much to the decidedly romantic tone, producing landscapes filled with flora and snowy forests that would be the envy of the Vancouver Olympics. The quilt of narrative-moving scenes is deftly faded into and out of, thoughtfully interspersed with poetic moments from Whishaw’s literal Ode to the Nightingale (spreading his gentle wings in a treetop) to the duet recitation by the principals of the film’s title poem even as the ravages of consumption gather their unstoppable strength, soon to harvest the genius’ final adieu.
The acting was generally fine: Whishaw readily at home in the clouds of ideas, metaphors and doubting critics; Cornish at her best when faced with bad news or verbal banter; best friend Charles Brown enjoyed a good turn from Paul Schneider (yet the subplot of his impregnating the maid—Antonia Campbell-Hughes—and “failing” Keats in his greatest hour of need lacked unconditional believability); the ever-present siblings Sam (Thomas Sangster) and Toots (Edie Martin) were loyal and adorable, respectively; Kerry Fox played the long-suffering Mama Brawne with just the right amount of stoicism and pride.
Campion’s love of the gone-too-soon poet and his incredibly rich, marvellously varied output can be sensed in every frame. Many will find the pace unbearably slow, but perhaps they have never spent a quiet hour or two delving into the mysteries, subtleties and exhilaration that a truly close examination brings to those able to invest the time required to finally appreciate the art and come to know that “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” JWR