This is a film I liked a great deal, though I can say with confidence that it won't be to everyone's taste.
Some of us will have encountered at least one or two of Emily Dickinson's poems at some time or other. (I thought enough of them to have included one of hers among those I've committed to memory over the years). However, other than being acquainted with a very few of her writings I knew next to nothing of the life of the poetess. This film performs a very useful function in filling in that gap and, I must say, it achieves it in admirable fashion.
It couldn't have had a more sympathetic director than Terence Davies, who also wrote the screenplay, and this is but the latest in a long line of exceptional films from that source, a history of excellence in film-making that is practically unrivalled among contemporary directors.
Davies' special forte is in directing women in women-orientated stories, and once again, now with Cynthia Nixon (a name I didn't recognise though I see she's done considerable TV work) as Emily, and Jennifer Ehle as her sister, Vinnie, in an almost-as-substantial role, even though the entire focus is always on Emily. In this film with strong female emphasis, Davies almost excels even himself.
It's the mid-19th century in Amherst, Massachusetts, when we first see a younger Emily (Emma Bell) at boarding school where she's already showing a degree of rebelliousness to her religious peers. On returning home to her family, the lack of religious bearings with which she was supposed to have returned infused, disappoints her father (Keith Carradine) while her mother (Joanna Bacon) maintains a disapproving silence. It's not that Emily goes so far as to voicing any atheistic propensity, which she emphatically does not, but it's her free-thinking spirit that concerns her father more - as well as her brother (Duncan Duff) - especially when she challenges the notion that the 'natural order' of things is that men are to be the leaders in society while women are to remain subservient and either non-controversial or silent What she sees as an injustice to her sex her father and brother see as obstinate and dangerous recklessness. Yet her father, though firm in his opinion, is not totally unsympathetic to Emily herself as his daughter. She finds a kindred 'wayward' spirit in (cousin?) Susan (Jodhi May) who has a witty rejoinder in every reply she gives. Parallel with this, Emily now has had some poems published in newspapers.
There is little 'action' as such in the film. (Nearly all of it actually filmed in Emily Dickinson's real house!) The most 'energetic' moments come when Emily confronts other family members for their behaviour, and her own refusal to conform with social conventions of the time. But the developments take on a serious edge when Emily becomes dramatically aware of her own mortality when she's confronted with severe back pain and starts suffering convulsive fits. Soon after this starts her own mother's health deteriorates, resulting in weepy episodes for her and her sister as well as for herself in her own physical decline.
All the while she's becoming ever more reclusive, still writing poetry whilst perfectly comfortable in her spinsterhoood as she advances in years.
Some viewers may think that this speechy film may be too poised and calculating, both visually - some ravishingly so - as well as aurally. A lot of the scenes do indeed look like the players are posing for an artist to capture them or they are waiting for the photographer's flash. The camera will pan very slowly around an occupied room revealing only by degrees who's present there. Also, the conversations are very deliberate, each player waiting their turns for the other to deliver his or her line before making a pithy reply to it. Indeed, I was reminded more than once of Oscar Wilde - some of the ripostes are even right up there, almost to his standard. (Deliberately, I wondered? Was this entirely Terence Davies' own work or is there some evidence to show as to how such conversations were carried on?) But generally, I felt it worked a treat.
I can also commend the use - or non-use - of music. Such as it was it was sensibly limited piano music or songs of the era, none of it being gratingly obtrusive. And instead of music we have the off-screen recitation of several of her verses.
I have to say that it's a terrific performance from Cynthia Nixon, and Jennifer Ehle's is just about as fine in a slightly subsidiary role. These two really carry the film, both deserving to be honoured for their efforts - as well as, of course, the incomparable Terence Davies himself, here at his best.............8.
2 hours ago