For his latest cinematic treat the veteran British auteur Terence Davies has written and directed a visually stunning period-drama biopic on the great American poet Emily Dickinson. Born into a prominent Massachusetts family in 1830, but Davies starts his story when as a rather troublesome young woman, Emily (Emma Bell) is cutting short her studies at Mount Holyoke College Women’s Seminary to go back home to Amherst.
Settling into a rather sedentary life at home Emily (Cynthia Nixon) is close to both her sister Vinnie (the ever delightful Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), but that doesn’t stop her imposing her somewhat impossibly high moral standards on them. She and Vinnie seem to share just one rather irreverent friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and trading quick-witted barbs with her as they stroll the house’s garden together seems to be practically Emily’s own pleasure, other than her writing which is her real passion.
Having dutifully asked her father (Keith Carradine) for permission to stay up late at night, and then to submit some of her finished poems to a local newspaper, Emily devoted herself singularly to her writing even though barely a dozen were ever published in her lifetime. Even the few that made it into print, not only had the punctuation altered by the newspaper editor, but they deliberately omitted her name as it was seemingly unacceptable for polite women in society to do something like writing which was the sole terrain of men.
The older she got, the more that Emily just focused on composing her poems and retreating into a hermitic life, and very obviously inheriting her mother’s deep melancholia. Romantically very inexperienced, she never encouraged any potential suitors, and even when some did call, she refused to meet them, and rather eccentrically conversed with them hidden from sight.
It all seems rather all at odds with this amazing body of beautiful poetry that was discovered after her rather early death at aged just 55 years old. Nixon in a career best performance as this unhappy genius, is bitterly dismissive of other poet’s work ….declaring Wadsworth’s famous ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ simply as ‘gruel’. Her Emily always fails to see the good in people (unlike Vinnie) yet when she narrates some of Emily’s more powerful pieces she takes on this totally different persona who was capable of finding real joy in the world.
The actual world that Davies and his cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister set this rather masterful movie in, has the outskirts of Antwerp standing in for Amherst, which is totally exquisite and gives the striking look that is a hallmark of all Davies’s films. His last movie Sunset Song barely made it into cinemas, which was a great shame. This one that premiered at Berlinale where it picked up some of best reviews of Davies’s career will definitely find its own audience. Whether or not you are fan of the poetry, Nixon’s nuanced performance alone is worth the price of admission, and so much more.