British writer and director Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea, ” “The House of Mirth”) looked at the poems of American poet Emily Dickinson and didn’t see a shrinking violet. He saw more than the shy recluse, the plain spinster who spun lyrics out of a life of utter desperation.
And he gives not the “Belle of Amherst,” of legend, play and teleplay (Julie Harris memorably captured that Dickinson). This is a woman of ambition and despair, fear and fury, a poetess with “A Quiet Passion.”
His portrait begins in her late teens, with Emma Bell as the literary-minded wit, one of three clever and glib children of a stern, pious Massachusetts lawyer (Keith Carradine).
In a single indelible opening scene, young Emily swaps barbs with an over-matched aunt (Annette Badland, quite good). “Cherish your ignorance, Aunt,” she purrs, in the only overt insult the prim old biddy can be sure was intentional. The pretty Ms. Bell (“Gracie”) suggests an Emily of youthful, biting sarcasm whose poetry is a revolt against her lot and humanity’s fate.
“Poems are my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all.”
Hard to be flip and funny with that outlook. But it’s only when Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” takes over the role, the charm slowly fades, the wit takes on a bitter edge that fans of the poetry will recognize, even if it is only glimpsed on the page. And for all the sisterly forbearance that Jennifer Ehle (“Pride and Prejudice”) can summon, that the snarky teacher pal Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey) promises and the needy assurances that sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) requires, Emily cannot fight the bile, the fury that pre-feminist decorum demands she suppress — at slavery, the Civil War, sexism and inferior poets like Longfellow.
“His genius lies in stating the obvious,” she opines with a murderous grin.
Dickinson’s poems are generously sampled, showcasing her genius, explaining her world view of “minor lives,” her grim expectation of death.
“Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
But rather than grim acceptance, this Miss Emily can work up a fine rage long before the coming of the night, snapping, shouting, accusing and breaking dishes.
Davies does a marvelous job of creating context, suggesting a circumscribed but not hermit-like life (the Dickinson of legend and cliche) and an era when beloved parents died in your arms, at home, when that was all you yourself had to look forward to, even if you “keep atheism at bay.”
Nixon has the gravitas to bring the brittle Emily to life, capturing the way disappointments, losing those close to her to marriage, moving away or death made her curdle into someone unfit for company. And Bell gives a smart alec sparkle to her brief, early moments of Austen-esque banter. The radiant Ehle feels like the better choice for Dickinson the moment we see her, but Nixon’s caustic cuts make the casting make sense. Ehle is delightful and warm as long-suffering sister Vinny, but Nixon’s Emily is only meant to be good company or so long.
It’s a movie that doesn’t focus as much on the creation of the work as it does on a fresh view of the woman who made it, and as such — the petticoats, formality of flirtation and chamber music dances (“I fear you must prepare yourself for a polka.”) can feel like a tease.
But Davies is hell-bent on showing us her private hell. His portrait of the poet is grim, gripping and less entertaining by design. It does make one pine, just a bit, for a movie about Young Emily, before the talent had truly matured, and before the optimism faded.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell
Credits: Written and directed by Terence Davies. A Music Box release.
Running time: 2:05