Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish bring to life the historic love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which is cut short by Keats’ early death. Get ready for a good cry. And you will have no one to blame but yourself, because you knew the ending going into it.
I can’t imagine that it’s is an easy task to portray a Romantic poet as an exciting and appealing hero. I’ve seen it done successfully in Shakespeare In Love, but Whishaw’s Keats—pale, slender, brooding, and soft-spoken—does not have the manic charisma of Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare. John has his own enigmatic attraction, certainly, but in the end it is Fanny who really carries the film. She’s introduced to us as a seamstress, stitching all of her own clothing by hand, and her creations are both impressive and absurd. We see her first in a bright red and yellow combination—later in a frock with a “triple mushroom collar”. She wears the clothing confidently, and enthusiastically describes it to anyone who will listen. When she meets John, she sends her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) (so cute!!!) to buy his new book of poems. Toots tells the bookseller, “My sister has met the author, and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.”
Fanny’s strong-willed personality is, of course, ultimately softened, and we see the tender side of her as she and John fall in love. I think that Cornish’s performance convincingly captures that feeling of first love—the euphoria, the desperate longing, the feeling that you’re about to die all the time due to extreme emotion. She lies sick in bed for five days after John leaves for the summer, waiting for a letter from him. When she finally receives one, she is deliriously happy. She lies down in the field, kisses Toots and tells her she loves her. I especially loved this moment because I found it so true to life: the idea that while happy in love, everything—even your annoying little sister—seems beautiful and precious.
There is, of course, a childishness and a rashness to Fanny’s passion. She throws a veritable temper tantrum when she finds out John is leaving for the summer, crying and telling him that she hates him. She tells her mother, “When I don’t hear from him, it’s as if I’ve died. As if the air is sucked out from my lungs, and I’m left desolate. But when I receive a letter, I know my world is real.” We hear her and are moved by her passion, but we also can’t help but chuckle. She is so dramatic and so young.
However, our knowledge of John’s impending death puts a dark spin on Fanny and John’s naive young love. We know all too well that Fanny’s childish tears over a summer apart or a delayed letter will ultimately give way to tears of very adult grief. I think this is a big part of the reason the film works. There is an interesting and terrible tension throughout the film between youth and death. John writes to Fanny in a letter, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” Fanny reads this and fills her bedroom with butterflies. But, sadly, in a way John and Fanny really are like the butterflies of which he writes, living only in mere moments together.
This is a heavily romantic and stylized film, and it just barely steers clear of being seriously cliche. John and Fanny spend a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes and reciting poetry. There is plenty of letter-writing, weeping, and walking back and forth across the heath. And yet, there is something so charming about it, and so genuine. If you are a poetry lover, or just want to enjoy some good old-fashioned nineteenth-century romance, it is definitely worth the tears.