Ben Whishaw Becomes The Romantic’s Romantic

by | September 18, 2009 at 8:02 PM | The Movies

Opening in limited release today is the newest Oscar contender from Academy Award winning writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano), entitled Bright Star, based on the too-short life and deeply felt love of the romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Given its pedigree, and given the fact that there will be ten Best Picture nominees this year instead of the traditional five, it’s important to pay attention to every work of art out there for your consideration.

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Keats was not only a romantic, but a Romantic – considered one of the best of the poets of Romanticism, although he never got that recognition in his lifetime. Even though Campion’s story is mostly told from the point of view of the strong-headed young Miss Brawne and her slow but unabashedly certain foray into first love, we see the depth of Keats’ emotion written plainly on Whishaw’s face. “I really learned to love him as a man and as a human being,” Whishaw says of Keats. “What I loved most was that, as I could gather from his letters and his poetry, he was someone of immense sensitivity, but also of robustness and common sense and straightforwardness. He was kind of ethereal but also of the earth.”

We hear nothing about poetry these days, and anyone who would actually call themselves ‘poets’ are dismissed as pretentious posers. But in 1818 London, poetry was a man’s art and a man’s leisure, to be discussed in boys clubs along with current events and other literary works. Male bonding happened over wine and a verse from Lord Byron, not a beer and a brutal tackle from DeMarcus Ware. So when Keats’ best friend and artistic collaborator, one Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), finds himself vexed by his compatriot’s burgeoning love for Miss Brawne, it’s likely not because he’s secretly gay (although Schneider admits he didn’t rule that out as a possibility when expressing Brown’s discomfiture, both Campion and Whishaw dismiss it outright). He’s just a guy who thinks his pal’s ditching him for a cruddy girl, and most guys have been there. “I just think it was a strong and defining kind of relationship,” Whishaw says. “I think it was more that they were best friends, they hang out together all the time, they wrote poetry together, and then suddenly there’s this girl, and Charles Brown doesn’t have all the attention anymore. It’s that kind of complication.”

Whishaw would know, because he did a hell of a lot of research into Keats in order to portray him, reading all the letters he wrote, many of his poems and a number of biographies about the man. “I certainly didn’t know any of the details of his life and I really didn’t know much about his poetry either,” he admits. “So for me it was a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown. There’s so much been written which I’ve scratched the surface of. You realize that everybody has a slightly different take on who he was, and I think that gives you a sense that your take is valid as well.”

Whishaw does have experience interpreting non-fictional characters, as he’s played Keith Richards in Stoned and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. “I don’t see a great deal of difference beyond the fact that they’re still alive and Keats is dead and there’s a bit more to draw on,” Whishaw says, contrasting his past roles with his current one. “But you’re telling a particular story about that person and that person fits into that story in a particular way, and you’ve got to honor that. With this film, I did all of this reading and I knew so much about Keats, but there was only a fraction of it that was appropriate for our story. You’ve got to honor the story that you’re telling, particularly with an artist like Jane. I think it’s Jane Campion’s Keats and Jane Campion’s Fanny Brawne. I felt very much that I was fulfilling her vision.”

So what was his take on Keats? “The thing about the letters is that he was just so human and experienced every kind of emotion very intensely. He had jealousy and a capacity to lose his temper and be furious, he could be very funny, sort of bawdy. Some of these things are not elements that the film goes into, but they were exciting to discover just because I don’t think that’s the image that’s been handed down to us of him. I spoke with a poet when I was preparing, and this poet said that there’s no way that Keats could possibly have been this kind of delicate, sickly person lying about all the time. To produce that amount of work, he must have been furiously alive and active and full of vitality. He produced so much and he was dead by the age of 25. When you remember that fact, it’s truly astonishing.”

“What I feel about him is that he was a rare human being, and he was a very good person,” Whishaw continues, with a manner so soft-spoken that one can easily see why Campion chose him for this role. “He had a kind of nobility about him, a nobility of spirit and of generosity. Jane talks about him almost as if he were an angel, a divine being. I think he was very human as well, but he had some kind of quality of divinity. I’d like the audience to be aware of this capacity he had to channel something higher than himself. When you look at the manuscripts of the poems, like Ode To A Nightingale, people who studied the handwriting say that he was not writing laboriously. He was writing at high speed, almost as if he were possessed, and his channel to whatever it is, inspiration or whatever, was very clear. That’s something I hope comes across.”

Whishaw had great praise for his co-star Cornish as well, and since the entire film hinges on the slow build of their interest and involvement with each other, it’s a good thing. “Abbie’s a really interesting creature. If she decides to trust you and let you in, you get absolutely 100% of her. You feel incredibly safe. There was no doubt that we trusted each other entirely. She’s incredibly generous.”

Everybody says they enjoyed working on whatver project they’re discussing, but when Whishaw says it, you believe it. “I was really excited to tell this love story. I’d not really done a love story – this is a very tragic, very sad love story, but the love is reciprocated and it’s passionate and intense. I was really kind of curious about that. It was just a joy. I absolutely loved it. It’s the happiest experience I’ve had of work. I really, really grieved for it afterwards.”

Ben Whishaw as John Keats in "Bright Star" (Apparition)