The Romantic poet John Keats wrote some glorious poetry, fell in love with his Hampstead neighbour Fanny Brawne, contracted TB and died in Rome aged just 25.
If you already knew that, you won’t learn much more from Jane Campion’s latest feature.
Rejecting any temptation to spice up her story Desperate Romantics-style, Campion sticks closely to the facts and relies on the power and emotional poignancy of the situation – and some superbly sensitive acting – for the impact of her film.
Ben Whishaw, whose vulnerable good looks stood him in fine stead in the film version of Brideshead Revisited and TV series Criminal Justice, makes a convincing and appealing Keats, his mind still acute even as his body starts to fail.
And he’s matched by Aussie actress Abbie Cornish as Fanny, giving a spirited, subtle performance that segues from saucy teasing when she first meets the poet (he nicknames her ‘Minxstress’) to growing tenderness and final anguish at the news of his fate.
Campion’s quiet attention to detail – of houses, of clothes, of the style of speech – pays dividends. Her cast feel completely natural in their setting – there’s no sense of actors ‘doing period’. Kerry Fox, who made her screen debut in Campion’s An Angel At My Table, gives a warmly sympathetic performance as Fanny’s mother, and newcomer Edie Martin is a feisty delight as her little sister.
Only Paul Schneider, as Keats’ bear-like friend and protector Charles Brown, strikes the odd false note with his intermittent Scots accent.
Downside? At just under two hours, there’s sometimes not quite enough story to fill the running time, and we do get a lot of the love-struck pair gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes and reciting the lad’s poetry.
But it’s an exceptionally intelligent, delicately made film, Campion’s best for years, and aspires to Keats’ own words, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever…”