2 STARS – DESPAIR
The life of Emily Dickinson is shown to be one of increasing despair in this film by Terence Davies. As both writer and director, Davies portrays both a depressing form of Christianity as well as a depressing form of family life. Melded together with Dickinson’s poetry, the film allows the viewer to enter the journey of despair that overtook her life. Feeling more like a stage play due to the deliberate rather than natural dialogue, the film starts stiffly and continues at a very slow pace.
Born in 1830 to a wealthy family in Amherst, MA, her father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) was a lawyer and her mother Emily Norcross (Joanna Bacon) suffered from depression. Her family’s oppressive and legalistic form of Christianity worked against Dickinson’s soul as seen in the opening scene. As a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, one of the first schools to educate women, we watch as an angry teacher forces students to divide themselves into those who are Christians or those who are seeking. Dickinson does not bow to the manipulation of this cruel, insensitive teacher and instead stands her ground in the middle. It is this resistance to peer pressure and insistence upon honesty that permeates her life. We see this same resistance at work when an equally insensitive pastor comes to their home and humiliates her father by demanding that he kneel in humility, an act she will not join. Whether this was the actual experience of Dickinson’s family or the projection of Davies as writer and director is unknown.
This struggle is a primary theme throughout the film. As Dickinson’s poetry often speaks of the eternal and of God’s interaction, she was often engaged in the primary human experiences of life. Impacted by her father’s authoritarian manner as well as her mother’s depression, Dickinson increasingly lived an isolated life. Rejecting suitors and even keeping her distance from publishers, she seldom left her home and had few visitors.
Close to her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), we also see her close friendship with the outspoken Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Buffam was a source of both joy and loss when she gets married and leaves Dickinson behind. The different interactions with her siblings and friend provide a backdrop for the full expression of Dickinson’s personality.
As a recluse, Dickinson’s only romantic experience portrayed in the film was when she fantasized about her married pastor, the Rev. Wadsworth (Eric Loren). Although no impropriety occurred, she seeks his approval for her poetry and is overjoyed at his appreciation. She is equally devastated when he leaves her church for a new position in San Francisco.
It could be argued that the genius of Dickinson’s writing came from the depth of her pain. Arising daily at 3:00am to write in the silence of the house, she lived a life of loneliness that eventually led her to self-proclaimed bitterness. Though this is not a usual portrayal of her life, (see question 1 below) it is a believable one as written and directed by Davies. As such this film does not so much portray a quiet passion as a bitter despair.
- One author in The Atlantic takes a different view from this film saying: “There is a third characteristic trait, a dauntless courage in accepting life. Existence, to her, was a momentous experience, and she let no promises of a future life deter her from feeling the throbs of this one. No false comfort released her from dismay at present anguish. An energy of pain and joy swept her soul, but did not leave any residue of bitterness or of sharp innuendo against the ways of the Almighty. Grief was a faith, not a disaster. She made no effort to smother the recollections of old companionship by that species of spiritual death to which so many people consent.” As you read her poetry, do you believe the film or this critic most accurately describes Dickinson’s true spiritual state?
- When Austin has an affair and commits adultery against his wife Susan (Jodhi May), Dickinson is livid. Why do you think she is so angry with her brother?
- The legalistic and joyless Christianity portrayed in the film is often described as Puritan. Have you ever experienced a form of Christianity that is like that? Have you experienced a joyful and loving form of Christianity? What do you think causes each of these very different expressions of the Christian faith?