“Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public. What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished...[It] may deserve a punishment: but no feeling man will be forward to inflict it: he will leave me alone, with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object. This is not written with the least atom of purpose to forestall criticisms of course, but from the desire I have to conciliate men who are competent to look, and who do look with a zealous eye, to the honour of English literature.” So wrote Keats in the preface to Endymion, published in 1818. So might Jane Campion have prefaced her film.
Physically, it is beautiful, particularly the photography of fabric, paper, flowers, butterflies, and luminous interiors. But as an accomplished deed, as a contribution to the honour of English literature, it leaves much to be desired. I wasn't surprised to find myself out of sympathy with the tone, as I think most period films fail to recreate the sensibility of their period, content to stick gen-y celebs in ye olde garb and assume that folks in the nineteenth century thought, felt and spoke much as we do. Beyond this elementary shortfall, I was struggling to find out what the film is about. It's not about Keats, as the only biographical cues we get are a puffy shirt and a slight cough. It's not about Fanny, in the sense that we see her inner world and understand her passion for the poet or the poems. It's not about the affair, which is anaemic and ambiguous, and has no clear genesis or consummation. And it's certainly not about poetry, though the central characters lurch into verse at key moments, much as leads launch into song in stage musicals. I have to conclude that it's in fact about the visual beauty of fabric, paper, flowers, butterflies and luminous interiors; that Keats was not a text but a pretext; and that Campion is in company with many a director who mistakes the medium for the subject. Maybe it's impossible to translate into film the synchronous evolution of a romantic poet and a poetic romance. Or maybe our generation is incapable of a rich and nuanced visualisation of great literature, preferring a shimmering spectacle to an enduring work of art.