In December I wrote a blog post entitled Picturing John Keats - Image or Imagination? describing how I felt about the representations of Keats in art. I mentioned the 2009 film Bright Star only briefly as but another opportunity for the real Keats to become distorted in our minds (this time by the lovely Ben Whishaw).
However, following a twitter conversation with historian Emma Jolly, who spent an evening watching the film with her son; it occurred to me that the film has a very striking effect in another way. The rules governing what young women should wear in these years of the Regency period (it is set in 1818-1821) seem to drive the film and the costumes become an important member of the cast in a way that is not always so apparent in other period dramas.
This is perhaps because the costume designer Janet Patterson was actually designing for a lead character – the love of Keats’ life, Fanny Brawne – who in the film at least is a student of fashion who makes her own clothes.
It is clear in the film that Fanny’s skill is belittled by the male characters and is not perceived as an art in itself, which it most certainly is if we are to believe she had indeed created the costumes herself, by hand in her bedroom. At just eighteen her talent would have been extraordinary, and some of the early fabric choices are to my untrained eye quite unorthodox for the period, chosen for striking visual effect rather than for authenticity.
Director Jane Campion also makes it clear that as a seamstress Fanny was not perceived by his friends as a sufficiently intelligent a match for Keats, which from surviving correspondence is close to the truth.
As anyone who has read this blog before will know, I love the film and can immerse myself in it as a piece of cinema. I am careful though to keep in my mind the knowledge that this is not John Keats and Fanny Brawne, however beautifully the parts are played. We have little idea of the clothes Fanny wore at eighteen and in the few images we have of her she is not dressed like Ms Cornish. We also have a very one-sided view of the love-affair as only Keats’ letters survive; the contents of some meant that for many years Fanny was vilified as a flighty piece unworthy of his affections, even though she had treasured every note, keeping them secret all her life.
Is this really another example of how easily we can be influenced by the media? For many Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish will be Keats and Fanny, in the way that Colin Firth has to a new generation become King George VI. My mother didn’t enjoy the film The King’s Speech much at all – she thought Firth was nothing like the ‘real thing’, even though that really wasn’t the point.
Janet Patterson was Oscar nominated for the costume design on Bright Star, and is renowned for the way she works hard to ‘live’ the era she is working to. She also designed for ‘The Piano’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady’. I do have to say I love the designs for Keats’ clothes, his coat particularly. My daughter wants one just like it. But where the ‘real’ Keats was described as physically short, but robust and full of energy, Whishaw’s portrayal is frail, pale and very quietly done. John Keats was known to dress, quote, ‘a la Byron’, but the costumes for Whishaw are muted and undeniably down-at-heel. He looks wonderful, but his portrayal is of the sort of ‘Romantic’ Keats we might expect to see on screen, rather than an attempt at truth.
I have read discussions about the costumes, and there is a view that they evolve through the film to tell their own story. Bright and vibrant at the start, as the situation changes, becomes desperate towards the end and eventually ends in tragedy the clothes become paler, less brash, more washed out so that the ‘widow’s weeds’ Fanny dons at the end of the film become all the more striking.
Abbie Cornish was quoted as saying of the outfits designed for her:
“The things I loved the most were the jackets, shoes and hats. They were so authentic it was kind of scary. I had undergarments, stockings, the corset, a petticoat, then another layer which give the dress its shape, and another layer over that with a blouse, and then the dress, then the collar… sometimes I had six layers of clothing on my body.”
The film oozes attention to Regency period detail. It is atmospheric and beautifully photographed and you can just let it flutter past you like the butterflies Fanny and her sister capture in glass jars. But the star of the film should always be Keats and his poetry and even though Jane Campion was clear the film was from Fanny Brawne’s perspective in that sense it is very much a fiction.