Terence Davies’s biopic of nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson starts with her schooldays, which did a cruelly efficient job of driving her rebellious spirit inwards and where she is well played by Emma Bell.
We then have a dutiful, low key and reverential plod through the rest of Emily’s life, where the passion is so quiet and repressed it is often almost indiscernible, ending with her death in 1886.
The film looks good in its period detail and from an information point of view is a useful biography, in that Dickinson is not as well known in the UK as in the US. We also get to hear a lot of her poetry, though as poetry I have to admit it doesn’t set me personally on fire.
Davies has gathered a good cast, led by Nixon as the adult Emily and Ehle as her devoted sister and best friend Vinnie. Their relationship is the strongest in the film and Ehle really helps to give it life. They both cope well in bringing to life some often very stilted dialogue. I say “dialogue” but for much of the time it feels like they are being asked to make a speech rather than respond in a conversation. One of the problems of the film is that for much of the time not only Emily and Vinnie but all the characters are written as more a set of characteristics mouthing speeches than flesh and blood people. There are though some flashes of wit and humour to relieve this, as in Annette Badland’s performance as the aunt, who fancies herself as a poet and inflicts her rather dreadful efforts on family gatherings.
Nixon as Emily looks very like images of Charlotte Bronte, which is appropriate in view of the similarity in their situations as intelligent, plain, outspoken spinsters of the period suffocated by a male society. The film rarely takes off as good drama though – it’s more like a television dramatised arts documentary. Emily’s hidden passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), who encourages her writing, is so discreet that is as much a surprise to us as to Vinnie, when Emily reveals it to her sister. Davies ups the drama more with the details of Emily’s illness towards the end of her life, where he lingers perhaps a touch too long. But the American Civil War for example, a big event in the lives of the period, is dismissed somewhat briskly with a couple of paintings and a poem.
Other characters in the story include Jodhi May as Emily’s sister in law who makes the most of her limited opportunities, though Duncan Duff as Austin, Emily’s brother is somewhat wooden. Carradine as the siblings’ strict but kindly but father, who early in the film makes it clear he does not approve of women on stage and by implication of a daughter with public literary ambitions, brings some complexity to his character and Joanna Bacon as their sad and frustrated mother, who is somewhat emulated by her daughter, also makes an impact.
Despite Nixon’s best efforts however the tragedy of Emily’s unfulfilled life and unrecognized talent fails to move us deeply.