A Superb Dramatization of the Life of a Great American Poet
Emily Dickinson isn't the easiest subject for a feature-length biopic. True, she is the greatest female poet in the English language, maybe even in world literature. But her life was uneventful in the extreme. She never married and probably died a virgin. Her love affairs were conducted by correspondence. She became reclusive as she got older, donning a white dress, rarely leaving home, and holding conversations through doorways. She wrote poetrya kind of literature appealing only to a tiny minority of readers and not amenable to film adaptation. Moreover, with a few exceptions, her poems are difficult: she specialized in extreme mental states and thorny intellectual paradoxes. And she died in complete obscurityit's only by good fortune that the 1800 poems she wrote still exist. At her death the vast majority of them existed only in a single handwritten manuscript and could easily have been consigned to flame as the ramblings of an eccentric spinster.
So Dickinson's biography hardly conforms to the typical story arc or dramatic requirements of the average American film. Until now, the most successful dramatization of the life of this poet who lived an interior existence, both literally and figuratively, was the one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, which needless to say emphasized her isolation.
Terence Davies's film knows and accepts all this, yet remembers that Dickinson in her own time was not a great poet, except perhaps only in the farthest reaches of her own imagination. Instead of a lonely genius, Davies conjures up a Dickinson who was very much a social being, even if her interactions were largely restricted to her family. Cynthia Nixon's Emily is a flawed, totally plausible, and deeply sympathetic woman of her time.
This is a brilliant film in the way it exploits the resources of the medium. The performances are universally excellent, and the dialogue is as witty as it must have been among clever Emily and her circle. Davies captures the claustrophobic interiors and repressed souls of still- Puritan mid-19th-century small-town Amherst, Massachusetts. The editing and pacing are superb, as for example in a slow 360 degree pan around the Dickinson sitting room that begins and ends on Emily's face.
But it's also brilliant in the way that it interprets Dickinson's life. How did the Civil War impact her Amherst domesticity? Why did she wear a white dress? What did she feel when her brother Austin, who lived with his wife Susan next door, started conducting an adulterous affair in her own living room? How did she feel to be dying slowly and horribly of kidney disease knowing that her poetry (her "Letter to the World" as she put it) was almost totally unread? Did the hope that she'd be appreciated by posterity reconcile her to her fate? Nixon's Emily behaves in each case as a human being would, making her predicament painful to watch. But it's strangely exhilarating toowe watch knowing that Dickinson's "Letter" has most definitely been delivered.
The film is slow-paced and developed as a series of vignettes. There's quite a lot of poetry in voice-over. At no point does it pander to 21st- century sensibilities. It will not be to the taste of the majority of the cinema-going public. Nor will many Dickinson cultists enjoy it, as they often prefer to idealize or mythologize her rather than think of her as a flesh-and-blood woman. But as a plausible biography of one of America's greatest poets, this film is nothing short of a triumph.
10 of 11 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?