Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
One fate comes to all alike, and this is as wrong as anything that happens in this world. As long as people live, their minds are full of evil and madness, and suddenly they die. But anyone who is alive in the world of the living has some hope; a live dog is better off than a dead lion. Yes, the living know they are going to die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward; they are completely forgotten. Their loves, their hates, their passions, all died with them. They will never again take part in anything that happens in this world.
British filmmaker/writer Terence Davies has given us a wonderful film to enhance our enjoyment of Emily Dickinson’s graceful poetry. He begins his film in 1848, when Emily would have been about. 18 years of age, a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where its founder Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen), addresses the assembled classes. “You have now come to the end of your second semester. Some of you will remain here … Some of you will go out into the world…I put to you a question of the utmost importance, which concerns your spiritual well-being. Do you wish to come to God and be saved?”
At her urging, those sure of their salvation move to one side of the room, while the not yet arrived, but still hopeful ones move to other side. One student remains in the center. Emily. Miss Lyons demands, “Have you said your prayers?” “Yes, though it can’t make much difference to the Creator.” Upset by this, her interrogator launches into a critical tirade, to which the unmoved Emily replies, “I wish I could feel as others do, but it is not possible.” “You are alone in your rebellion, Miss Dickinson. I fear that you are a no-hoper.” “Yes, Miss Lyon.”
The recalcitrant Emily is relieved that her brother Austin, has arrived to rescue her, taking her and her sister back to their home in Amherst. Throughout the film Emily is depicted as a lone rebel, standing against the stifling conventions of her time, eventually becoming the recluse who was the subject of so much talk in the town. Later when she is asked if she has an illness, she says that she had “an acute case of evangelism.”
Another example of the script’s many witticism’s is Emily’s response to her straight-laced Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) comparing her rebellious acts to French Revolutionist Robespierre. The niece impudently says that she would prefer Charlotte Corday, the vengeful woman who was executed for assassinating the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.
At home Emily usually is the dutiful daughter, seeking her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) permission to stay up late and write her poems. Liberal for his times, he agrees. He also accedes to her request that he contact his friend Dr. Holland, editor of the Springfield Republican, about publishing one of her poems. (Until the end of her life, this would be the only journal in which less than a dozen of her over 800 poems appeared in print.) Yet we also see the father as sharing his age’s patriarchal views when the family attends an operatic recital in Boston and he criticizes the female singer for appearing on a stage. Aunt Elizabeth is even more vehement in denouncing this crossing over the line of female propriety.
Throughout her life Emily will be the dutiful (to her father) outsider, even dissenting from the public’s taste in poetry. Whereas others profess their great admiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, especially his lengthy “Hiawatha,” she expresses disdain. She prefers poetry that is not so obvious, poetry that challenges the intellect as well as the senses. She pushes against the world even in the punctuation of her writing, in one scene angrily condemning the editor for “correcting” what he thought were mistakes without consulting her.
The film transitions from its short first portion dealing with the characters’ youth to its longer section, set years later, by a marvelous dissolve effect. The family members are having their portraits taken by a photographer. As the finished photo of each appears, it morphs from the faces of the younger actors into that of the older ones who take their places in the story. Rose Williams, playing Emily’s sister Vinnie, slowly changes into Jennifer Ehle; Benjamin Wainwright, as young Austin, melts into Duncan Duff; Emma Bell dissolves into Cynthia Nixon — and Keith Carradine’s hair becomes thinner.
Another admirable technical feat is a leisurely 360-degree camera shot in the family parlor that begins with Emily. The family members are entertaining themselves as slowly the camera focuses upon each of them–the austere Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) is almost nodding off to sleep; Edward is reading; brother, Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), partly off in the shadows, also is reading, her adored sister, Lavinia (Rose Williams), known as Vinnie, sewing; and their mother, also named Emily (Joanna Bacon) stares at the fire. The camera passes over the flames in the fireplace and other objects in the semi-darkened room, at last coming to rest once more on young Emily, her serious face revealing some inner concern.
Never having read any of the Dickinson biographies, I do not know how much of the film’s dialogue is historical, and how much stems from the creative imagination of the filmmaker. Admirers of Mt. Holyoke College and its pioneering feminist founder Mary Lyon will be upset by the portrayal of Ms. Lyon as a narrow-minded, vindictive religious fanatic, but I suspect the writer would say that his intention is for this scene is to show the kind of religion the poet was up against all her life, rather than to show the real Miss Lyon. From what I have been able to find out, this scene is not recorded anywhere else. However, such rigid religious views did prevail in New England at the time, and sadly, still are wide-spread among Fundamentalists. This is but one of the theories as to why Dickinson left the school after just 10 months, another being that she was homesick, and another that the shy girl and her sister (yes, Vinnie enrolled at the same time) did not get along with her fellow students.
Although I usually prefer historical accuracy, I find this scene helpful in showing the poet’s courage and forthrightness in refusing to bow down to religious tyranny—and she literally refuses to bow down when the dour pastor of her family’s church visits their home and demands that they all kneel and pray for God’s forgiveness. Emily’s refusal is based on her lack of feeling any guilt, her father angrily chastising her later and demanding that she apologize.
That she does respect compassionate religious leaders we see later in her relationship to other ministers, and, of course, in her poems, several of whom are read throughout the film. I am looking forward to seeing the film on DVD when I can use the subtitles to better catch the words of the numerous poems read by Cynthia Nixon. (I wish that IMDB included a list of them.) Of course, as the film approaches the time of the poet’s death, we do hear the words of her beloved, “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me.”
Mary Lyon might have branded Dickinson as a “no-hoper,” but the poet was merely a questioner of dull, unimaginative orthodoxy. She would go on to write, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” The poet might have withdrawn from the world, but not from the universe. She continued to explore the latter regarding Nature, God, time, and death.
The film portrays Emily Dickinson as living completely in her own time (hence her obeying her father) yet also pushing against it, moving toward our own wherein a woman need not seek anyone’s permission to write after hours (or any other time). Her character, or role in life, is well summed up by the woman closest to her, except for her sister Vinnie, Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey): “You are a strange creature, with more depth than any of us. You don’t demonstrate, you reveal.” I had intended to close this review with this, but then recalled the poem quoted in the film, perhaps more fitting in that it is autobiographical:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me
This review with a set of questions will be in the 2017 issue of VP.