I had an English uncle who came to Colorado years ago--the most musical member of our family. I took him on a road trip through the Arkansas Valley and slipped in a tape of Harold in Italy, which I thought would suit the occasion (he was a Berlioz man). Five minutes later he told me very firmly to turn the music off. Why? "You can't see the landscape and listen to the music at the same time," he said. At the time I put this down to English prudery, and I still might. But watching Bright Star, the new movie about John Keats last night, I began to think my uncle had a point.
Ben Whishaw is a fine young British actor, and the perfect choice for the tubercular romantic poet. He is dark and delicate, he can read poetry (he was Trevor Nunn's Hamlet five years ago). He's beautiful and so is the movie, always. And so is Abbie Cronish, playing Fanny Brawne. There's some terrific acting, wonderful light, flowers, butterflies and fabrics to die for--the movie is worth going for them alone, on couches, chairs or ruffled around Fanny's neck. The only thing missing is the poetry. Some of it's there, but it's always given a dramatic context, as if spontaneously created by the intensity of the occasion, and always subordinate to that occasion (Keats and Fanny trade stanzas of La Belle Dame Sans Merci in one of their few moments alone together, and while the lines matter, the intimacy matters more, as it should in a movie--the actual poem makes very little sense in this context). The poetry is almost always fragmented, understandably, since Keats wrote with the saturation of a great sauterne and usually at length. And always, as everything is these days at the cinema, the tender poetry is underscored by Mozart or some other aching stings.
I bore through all this about as well as a man can, putting my money on the very end of the film where reviews had advised me to stay, since it was there we would hear Ben Wishaw's complete reading of the "ode to the Nightingale," one of the greatest of poems and one of my favorites. And sure enough, with the news of Keats' death in Rome, the movie went to black and the poem began. Ahh, at last, I thought, a poem by John Keats. But what is this? The houselights were coming up. And people were getting up, chatting, and shuffling out of the theatre before the first stanza was done. I wanted to yell, HEY SIT DOWN! SHUT UP! THIS IS THE ODE TO THE NIGHTINGALE! AN ACTUAL POEM BY JOHN KEATS. SOME OF THE GREATEST LINES EVER WRITTEN, YOU BOVINE MORONS!!! I restrained myself--though now I rather wish I hadn't. But it would have been to no avail even in a dark and reverent house. The music was still playing. The credits were rolling and I would have been reading who supplied the shoes while listening to John Keats. From the screen I heard Ben Wishaw say that he had been half in love with easeful death. "Thanks for the handkerchief," said a woman behind me. Keats nightingale went unheard, even while pouring forth its soul in ecstasy. Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
I won't know for sure till I hear the poem read on the soundtrack. Which I'll probably play on I-25 roaring past an eighteen wheeler. Sorry, uncle-- it's just the way we live now.