[Happy birthday, Andy! Not that you read this, but maybe someone’ll tell you about it. Love, Your Sister.]
One of my study group members (I’m in law school) was, er, less than enthralled with whatever it was we were supposed to be doing so took a moment out to look up the upcoming movies for this week. One of them was described as ‘hot Regency chastity,’ I think by the New York Times, and was clearly a costume drama, so we made plans to see it as soon as possible. Directed by Jane Campion, it starts Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne and Ben Whishaw as the poet John Keats.
Fanny is young — late teens or early twenties — and rather more interested in fashion than poetry when she makes the acquaintance of John Keats and his friend and collaborator, Mr. (Charles Armitage) Brown. The two come into closer acquaintance and then fall in love, despite the fact that Keats has less than no money and Fanny, whose father is dead, cannot marry him. Nonetheless, they enter into an affair of the heart, and although the world — and Keats’s health — conspire to keep them apart, they find ways to remain together.
The phrase ‘hot Regency chastity’ is pretty accurate; there’s no on-screen sex, but Fanny and John’s closed-mouth kisses are hotter than they should be — on a par with Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis’s character) removing Ellen Olenska’s (Michelle Pfeiffer’s character) glove in The Age of Innocence. To give a better comparison, they’re as hot as the pottery scene in Ghost. No, really. Campion, the actors, and the scriptwriters all do a very good job of putting those scenes, especially the first, together.
Fanny’s interest in fashion isn’t superficial; she spends many a scene in the movie designing and sewing her own clothing, and it’s obvious seeing her in scenes with the other women in the film that she is wearing clothing that is significantly different from theirs. She wears more colors; she shows up in a dress with sheer sleeves at one point; she makes a statement about how she is wearing the first triple-pleated mushroom collar in the area. While some of these outfits look a little silly to modern audiences (especially modern audiences raised on the bland, albeit accurate, clothing from other BBC adaptations set in this era), by the end of the movie, Fanny’s obsession with fashion is not only accepted but interesting. Because of her rapidly-changing wardrobe, we notice a bit more that Keats pretty much wears the same blue coat for the entire film. We also notice that his friend, Mr. Brown (they take great pains to pronounce his name differently from Fanny’s) looks moderately silly in a plaid suit for nearly the entire film.
I don’t know that we’re supposed to like Fanny at first; she comes across as somewhat snobby and abrasive. Eventually we come to realize that it’s just Mr. Brown to whom she is actually mean; she’s much milder to Keats, and is downright sweet to everyone else in the movie. Keats is quiet; I think we’re supposed to see Mr. Brown as causing at least as many problems as he solves. Fanny and John’s relationship builds amazingly organically. For a story with very little plot, it (as my fellow student said) kept our interest surprisingly well for the two hours plus of the film. I wouldn’t call it my favorite example of romantic costume dramas — it would take more than an ill-fated pair of lovers to knock Andrew Davies’s Pride and Prejudice off its throne — but it is absolutely worth watching and has fantastic acting, cinematography, and costuming. 4.5/5 stars.