It’s fun to imagine how the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) would have processed a film about her largely solitary life, and her portrayal by one of the stars of cheerfully raunchy Sex in the City. But we can see for ourselves, in Terence Davies’ (House of Mirth) handsome bio-pic, in which Cynthia Nixon portrays the often-difficult Dickinson with great sympathy.
Dickinson lived in Amherst, Mass., often reclusively. Her few companions here include family members and a rather lively friend, with whom she enjoys verbal sparring. She remains unmarried, and writes poetry, some of which is published. As modern viewers, we pity the sensitive and yearning Dickinson her often sad life. Sequestered by societal mores and her own insecurities, she is unable to realize the fullest expression of her talents. (There is never an easy time to be a poet. But to be an upper-middle-class woman in the 1800s was simply to be married off or ignored as a spinster, and never a poet.)
The title refers to Dickinson’s emotional passion (however suppressed), but can also take the religious meaning, denoting a time of suffering. And religion, too, is up for frequent debate in Dickinson’s life, as she struggles with incorporating her own desire for a fulfilling spirituality within the rigid structures of the organized church.
Davies’ film is a lyrical work, and literally full of poetry. It should please those who can appreciate an introspective and meditative biography of someone who rarely left her house. It is true parlor intrigue — a room where perhaps a quarter of the film takes place — in which the wickedest things are the barbed epigrams, and the dramas are life’s familiar woes: the death of a parent, the loss of a friend, an unresolved illness. A must-see for fans of Dickinson and 19th-century arts and letters.