4/21/17

Terence Davis' Human Emily Dickinson

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A QUIET PASSION
Directed by Terence DAVIES
MUSIC BOX FILMS, 126 MINUTES, PG-13
★★★★

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set. —Emily Dickinson


If, like me, you live anywhere near Amherst, Massachusetts, you're likely to have one of two very strong opinions about native daughter Emily Dickinson—you either worship the grass upon which she trod, or you're sick of hearing her very name. I am a card-carrying member of the second camp. I feel about Dickinson much as I feel about characters from the Brontes and Jane Austen—enough with the tormented passivity and internalized repression. Director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon have not only made me reconsider Ms. Dickinson, they've sent me scurrying back to her poems.

The rejoinder to my impatience with Dickinson is, of course, that women of her era (1830-1886) had few options. Davies subtlety shows us the stultifying effects of being female in the 19th century. His is a very European film in style, filled with pan shots and moments in which silence speaks louder than dialogue. Though it might be hard for those weaned on action films to watch, there are several scenes of domestic non-bliss in which the camera slowly surveys a silent room in which men are contentedly reading and women look at if they might devolve into boredom-induced madness or melt into the patterned wallpaper upon which the lens lingers. Indeed, it's hard not to think of Charlotte Perkins-Gilman in moments such as these. Where are the cultural cracks through which non-conformists can escape? That's exactly the slant Davies employs in his look at Emily Dickinson—one whose interstices, jumps, and cuts are filled with snippets of her verse.

We see Emily as a rebel from the start—a woman fiercely guarding her own soul and willing to stand up to the indomitable Mary Lyons to do so—perhaps one of the reasons Dickinson only lasted ten months at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary. Davies doesn't give us an eternally gloomy Dickinson. Young Emily (Emma Bell) is light, clever, carefree, and saucy enough to bait her pious, drear Aunt Elizabeth. This carries over as she enters maturity. If you only know Cynthia Nixon from Sex in the City, be prepared to be astonished; it would not surprise me if hers supplants Julie Harris' as the definitive portrayal of Dickinson. Nixon gives us a Dickinson who takes joy in other insouciant women, especially her sunny sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her good-hearted sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and the tart-tongued Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), the principal of a local school for girls. Bailey is a special delight. In the film, she drops witticisms, snide comments, and wicked remarks like a female Oscar Wilde. In fact, Dickinson's mid-life inner circle of female friends stands in contrast to the Stygian outlook of elders such as her sad-sack mother (Joanna Bacon) and of men drowning in their own impossible standards of honor and piety: her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), a procession of stodgy ministers, and her father Edward—expertly played by Keith Carradine, who finds it hard always to play the stern paterfamilias and breaks expectations when least expected.

This is far more than Life with the Dickinsons. There is plenty of heavy stuff: Emily's obsession with mortality and immortality, her desire for artistic acceptance, and her fury over being better known for her gardening skills than for her verse, a frustration she uses to batter editor Samuel Bowles (Trevor Cooper). And, of course, there is Dickinson's storied descent into isolation, misanthropy, and despair. What precipitated this? Well… that's the stuff of scores of dissertations and no one knows for certain.

Dickinson scholars, I'm sure, will bemoan liberties in the film. such as the conjecture that she was in love with a married minister, or a scene in which she is the interruptus to her brother's coitus with Mabel Loomis Todd. Austin indeed had an affair with Todd, but Emily never met the woman who later edited her poems. Non-Dickinson junkies might be baffled at moments in which Davies telescopes time in ways that require some pre-knowledge. It's certainly ambitious to tackle so much biography in one film and, perhaps, inevitable that gaps will emerge. I can forgive these, as Davies hands us a human Emily Dickinson whose sadness and resignation are balanced by flights into humor, hope, and independence. Are these readings too feminist? Too modern? Again, who knows? I want Davies' take to be true, and it's to his credit that he moved a Dickinson Abstainer such as I. There's a closing morphing sequence in which the (to-date) only authenticated picture of Emily Dickinson slowly becomes the image of Cynthia Nixon. And so I shall henceforth think of her.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The exteriors of this movie were filmed in Amherst; the interiors on a set in Belgium modeled on the Dickinson homestead.

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