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Director Terence Davies’ brilliant portrayal of Emily Dickinson is an immensely important film. It will shape the perceptions of Dickinson’s life for every undergraduate reader of her poetry from now on.
The film is all the more brilliant because it is the story of a young woman who leaves represses school, returns to the family home where she lives and writes poetry for the rest of her life. And that’s the plot.
The rest of the film is held together by two incredible actors Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle. But predominantly by an absolutely outstanding performance by Nixon.
For the most part, it’s a reflective and contemplative film, a film about a poet whose ill-health and disillusionment increasingly isolated to from the world and all around her.
The first half of the film, which features Emily’s friendship with Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey) sparkles with Wildean wit.
The two discuss marriage often, not as a romantic option but as a practical one. The friendship ends, as it must, when Vryling marries and moves away. There is a poignant little scene in the church when Vryling walks down the aisle with her new husband and turns to Emily and says, “No tears, Emily.”
There are some marvellous exchanges between Emily and her brother and sister on one hand and her aunt Elizabeth Dickinson Currier (Annette Badland) which could have come straight out of Oscar Wilde.
But the mood darkens in the second half of the film. People for whom Emily has and deep emotional attachment, including the married Reverend Charles Wadsworth, move away and Emily’s parents both die. Some, but not much, of her poetry is begrudgingly published by male editors.
Emily dresses in white and increasingly rejects all contact from potential suitors and even editors.
Dickinson reads her poetry throughout the film. The final poem is the beautiful Because I could not stop for Death which is read as Dickenson’s funeral cortege takes her to the graveyard.
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility —
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —
Or rather — He passed Us —
The Dews drew quivering and Chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground —
Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity —