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Who better than Terence Davies, the introspective director of finely detailed literary adaptations such as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and the Scottish Sunset Song, to bring a definitive biography of revered 19th century poet Emily Dickinson to the screen? That, at least, is the premise that will draw many bookish viewers into theaters to see Cynthia Nixon pull back her hair severely and don the constricting taffeta gowns of the role. But despite a warmly interacting cast that includes Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s sister and Keith Carradine as her lion-maned, lionized father, and a valiant effort on the part of Nixon and Davies to externalize the poet’s inner demons in emotional, high-tension scenes, the film can’t escape an underlying static quality that extinguishes the flame before it can get burning.
It’s also quite a downer to watch the courageous, witty rebel Dickinson turn from a sharp-tongued girl into an embittered old maid, unable to break free of her unhealthy attachment to her family and create a happy life for herself. Nixon gracefully portrays a life of quiet dignity, in which her emotions were channeled into sublime, elliptical poetry while her personal life remained an arid desert of frustrated desire (she referred to herself, only half-humorously, as a “no-hoper”) with barely a fantasy lover to populate it. So it’s not the kind of uplifting tale likely to inspire generations of college lit majors, especially considering that only seven of the great poet’s 1,800 verses were in print at the time of her excruciatingly painful death from kidney failure at the age of 55. And that death is protracted on screen as the final punctuation mark.
Shot largely in Belgium, with some location shooting in Amherst, Mass., Davies relies heavily on expressively lit interiors to convey intimate sentiments, as delicate as the refined language of the day. Dickinson was a homebody who eventually turned into a full-fledged recluse, refusing to leave her well-to-do family’s comfortable house and charming backyard garden.
But as the curtains open, Emily (a delightful Emma Bell) is a wise-cracking student at Mount Holyoke whose defiance of the stern headmistress’s evangelical fervor earns her freedom. Her dashing father, handsome brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and glowing sister Vinnie arrive like the cavalry to whisk her back home to Amherst, where Nixon soon takes over the central role.
They are good at parrying her barbed wit, and when her father gives her permission to write poetry every night between 3 and 6 a.m. (her idea), she’s in heaven. Even if her church-going family talks about vices and the need to avoid them, they are liberal enough to allow the free exchange of ideas. And then there is Emily’s unconventional friend Ms. Vryling Buffom (archly played by Catherine Bailey), who flaunts her contrarianism with Wilde-like aphorisms about men, only to get conveniently married later on.
The Protestant religion of the day shaped Emily’s thinking and her work, and Davies brings out its ambiguous influence well. Despite her free spirit and refusal to bow her head to its oppression (in one scene she infuriates her father by literally refusing to get down on her knees before the pastor), she participated in church activities and ardently followed the sermons of the good-looking Rev. Wadsworth (Eric Loren). The only soul in the whole film who admires her poems unconditionally and sincerely, he becomes an object of deep affection for Emily. Unfortunately he’s married to a woman so severe she would have put a Salem inquisitor to shame. In an exquisitely funny tea party scene, she haughtily refuses the vice of liquid stimulants in favor of plain water. One can only wonder how the good reverend (who allows himself the luxury of hot water) understood Emily’s poems. When he suddenly leaves for San Francisco, Emily is shattered, and Vinnie’s remonstrances that it’s sinful to love a married man are to no avail.
This key scene is ironically echoed later when it is Emily’s turn to call brother Austin to task for his dalliance with a certain Mrs. Todd. But instead of Vinnie’s loving scolding, Emily falls into such a rage of angry indignation, ostensibly in defense of Austin’s betrayed wife, that she creates a deep rift in the family.
It’s clear that she was far too great and sensitive a mind not to be frustrated by the near-total lack of appreciation her poetry found during her lifetime. The one publisher who is shown visiting the house, a friend of the family, dismisses her talent off-handedly and freely admits to altering her original punctuation in the interest of easy reading. At this suggestion, Nixon is the height of scorn.
But beyond the obtuse conventionality of the day, the more immediate question is how the audience can understand these pithy, dense haikus full of abstract nouns that require time and repeated readings to digest. Numerous poems are read in the film, but their intricate meaning is ungraspable before the following dialogue takes over. Whereas in Sophie’s Choice the Dickinson poem “Ample Make This Bed” was slowly recited multiple times, allowing its stately verses to reverberate and take hold emotionally, here, where they are so important to understanding the woman, they feel hurried and dry.
It is a frustration compounded by the elaborate language used for dialogue by all the characters, as though no one in the family ever spoke in simple direct sentences. Like the difficult Scottish dialogue in Sunset Song, the formal period language of the screenplay sets a tone, but also raises a serious obstacle to understanding that persists throughout the film. Though the cast delivers their lines with nonchalance, it takes the ear time to process the unfamiliar phrasing.
Far from the glamour of Sex and the City here, Nixon undergoes a rather devastating transition from plain Jane youth into ailing adulthood. While she repeated protests to her bewitchingly handsome sister and brother that she’s too ugly to find a suitor, she does everything in her power to alienate the few who dare to court her. Nixon skirts but sidesteps the theatrical in this complex role. Faithfully at her side, Ehle shows a combo of sense and sensibility that is much easier to love.
As with many of Davies’ films, there is much to admire in the meticulous period recreation and a dazzling use of light and motion that create an unforgettable feeling of place and time. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister has a soulful approach to describing the oppressive warmth of 19th century interiors, and their harmony is restful without ever boring. The musical choices, so important in the directors’ films, are fewer here and stick to the classics: Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin and Bellini.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
Production companies: Hurricane Films, Potemkin, Scope Pictures
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Jodhi May, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff, Joanna Bacon, Eric Loren
Director-screenwriter: Terence Davies
Producers: Roy Boulter, Solon Papadopoulos
Co-producers: Peter De Maegd, Tom Hameeuw
Director of photography: Florian Hoffmeister
Production designer: Merijn Sep
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula
Sales: Double Dutch International, United Talent Agency
Not rated, 126 minutes
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