Very quiet. And a little bitter. This is not a bad movie but it left me feeling deflated and very happy to not be Emily Dickinson or a woman in the mid-19th century.
Emily Dickinson was a New England poet with a love of words and not much else going on in her life. For middle class white women of the time, the options were marriage, regardless of one’s romantic interest or sexual orientation, or long and monotonous days of baking and gardening. Terence Davies, whose films are meticulous and, lately, often more than two hours long, seems to have crafted the film out of the quiet and bitter monotony of Dickinson’s life. It is masterly but makes for hard watching.
Emily (played first by Emma Bell and then Cynthia Nixon), is shown as a headstrong non-conformist, talking back to her teachers at her all-girls boarding school with remarkable confidence. She has a lot of muchness. Her family fills her life and embraces her witty prickliness. Her sister Vinnie (Rose Williams and Jennifer Ehle) and brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright and Duncan Duff) are co-conspirators against a stuffy and staid world that bids them to travel only well-worn paths on the inevitable journey to death. Her father (Keith Carradine) is strict but indulgent, her mother (Joanna Bacon) is fragile and prone to melancholy.
Once Emily is brought home from school, we rarely see her outside her home or garden. A spark of energy in her life is her friendship with Vryling Buffam, who matches her quip for quip, introducing herself with the acknowledgement that her name “sounds like an anagram.” Vryling seems to have the same aversion to succumbing to social expectations that compromise her freedom so it is a deep grief for Emily when she pragmatically decides to marry.
Marriage, purpose and death are pervasive themes throughout the film. For Vinnie and Emily, the decision not to marry means a quiet life that sees each struggle differently with a sense of their life’s purpose. Vinnie is glowingly positive but for Emily, who states early on that “Poetry is my only solace for the eternity that surrounds us all,” her limited choices see her retreat into her own head and a world that is increasingly bitter and morbid.
The film is beautifully constructed with a colour palette and insularity of setting and cinematography that keeps us fettered within the confines of Emily’s small world. The transition between the actors playing the younger and older versions of the Dickinson siblings is artfully done; as each sits still for a photograph, the camera slowly closes in and the faces morph from one to the other. The sense I had was of watching vignettes of a life; the narrative seems to flow but it feels like a montage of scenes from a life that has such little change, the only understanding of time passing is the death of a parent or the birth of a child.
Sometimes the dialogue feels stilted, particularly between Vryling and Emily where they speak in clever quotable lines – “Let’s not be anything today except superficial,” Emily says. “Yes, and superficiality should always be spontaneous. If it is studied, it is too close to hypocrisy,” Vryling replies. I didn’t get a sense of real closeness or genuine conversation. The closest Emily seems to come to this is one scene with Austin’s wife, Sarah (Jodhi May), whose unburdening succinctly illustrates the claustrophobic world of women of their class. Another is Emily’s rarely seen mother speaking of the anguish of longing.
Scenes are interspersed with Nixon reading Dickinson’s poems and these stitch together our understanding of Emily’s life. Like the documentary Amy about singer Amy Winehouse, the juxtaposition of the facts of Dickinson’s life with her work shows the interconnectedness of the two. When she says, “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me” we see the despair of a talent that, because of her gender, will never be taken seriously. If nothing else, watching this film has given me a greater understanding of her poetry and the desperate longing it discloses.
I was dubious at the casting of Nixon as Emily and the vocal transition from Bell to Nixon was momentarily jarring but she completely inhabits the character. What I admired most was the disinclination to make her likeable – we empathise with her but her increasing moroseness and belligerence is played out unflinchingly. Ehle also shines, with an understated intensity that allows us to compare her different choices and perhaps different personality and mental wellness with Emily’s.
As the credits rolled, I didn’t feel empowered, just thankful for my life.
Have you seen this film? let me know what you thought in the comments below.