Most of you will, no doubt, recall with a sigh being forced to read Emily Dickinson poems in school. They were never uplifting, always about death and had cunningly simple verse that rattled around for months afterwards in your head. 'Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me', is the most famous example, and you'll be saying that all day now. Her work was famously miserable, and one yearned to move on to the jolly and uplifting ditties of Thomas Hardy (groan).
But such flippancies ignore the depth and passion of Dickinson's work, which has surely stood the test of time for a reason. So who was she, and why on earth was she so f***ing miserable? These and many more questions are eloquently answered by A Quiet Passion, Terrence Davies' mesmerising and soulful biopic that follows Emily from youth to middle age and gives her writings historical and familial context.
The second child of a well-regarded Massachusetts family, Emily was raised as a lady and when we first meet her is quietly rebelling against the evangelistic fervour of a female seminary college. She's making a stand against her hell-obsessed principal when her father (Keith Carradine) arrives to save her from damnation. Emily (played early on by Emma Bell) returns to the Dickinson family home at Amherst, and tells her father she's lately become interested in poetry. Would he mind if she rose in the dead of night to write undisturbed?
He gives his blessing, and Emily begins a working pattern she would retain for the rest of her life, pumping out boldly original but increasingly morbid poems most of which would remain hidden till after her death. But Davies' film is not interested in merely peddling the myth of Dickinson the literary wraith: in youth and early middle age, she's presented as a lively, witty woman who loves company and is curious about the wider world. Cynthia Nixon plays the mature Emily, and gives a wonderful portrayal of a warm, passionate, curious and unconventional woman who instinctively rebels against the inferior status of women in 19th century society, and isn't cut out to play the little woman and disappear dutifully into a marriage. That leaves little wriggle-room, and in one brilliant scene Davies' wordlessly encapsulates the lot of a Victorian middle-class spinster.
His camera lights on Emily reading at night, then slowly spins 360 degrees around the drawing room past her father, brother, sister and mother as a clock solemnly strikes 10. The men will be free to practice law, see the wider world, but for the likes of Emily, this house will become a prison. She has good company to begin with: Jennifer Ehle plays her devoted younger sister, Lavinia, and Emily enjoys lively verbal jousts with her protofeminist friend, Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey).
But her stubborn disregard for convention takes its toll, and in her later years Dickinson retreats from the world altogether, plagued by failing health and speaking to rare guests from a hidden spot at the top of the stairs.
Those scenes are played for laughs in a film that avoids excessive solemnity and refuses to canonise Dickinson. She can be difficult, even shrewish, and tends as we all do to take out her frustrations on those closest to her. But it's impossible not to admire her cussed determination, and at one point Emily has a right old go (from the top of the stairs) at the newspaper editor who's been publishing her poems and dared adjust her punctuation.
Nixon's Dickinson is simultaneously fearless and brittle, and her superb performance helps vivify a film that is, by necessity, housebound. Davies uses classical composition and his eye for detail to evocatively recreate the poet's rich but stifling interior world, and lines of her verse drift dreamily in and out of his screenplay. And in a beautiful touch, Emily moves from youth to middle age and beyond with the help of a digitally transforming daguerreotype portrait.
A Quiet Passion (12A, 129mins)