There is a terrific line in an Ani Difranco song: ‘If my life were a movie, everything I said would be interesting’. Such is the case here, for this is one of those movies in which each line of dialogue is jam-packed with bons mots, profound retorts, insightful observations and the sort of erudition and philosophising that you and I can only come up with half an hour after a conversation is concluded when we’re on our way home.
Did people really talk like that in the nineteenth century? Even educated New Englanders such as the Dickinson family of Massachusetts? Emily Dickinson (1830–86) was an American poet whose work can be found in any anthology of western poetry. She apparently lived a miserably unhappy life and director Terence Davies has decided that if Emily (Cynthia Nixon) suffered for her art, then you might as well suffer for it too. Extracts from her writing, read as voice-over by Nixon, are frequently used to accompany events as they happen – not that much actually does happen, Emily being a shrinking violet who literally never left the house.
The great and surely unacceptable irony is that Dickinson is held up to have been, from an early age, a defiant proto-feminist, but here it is made out that her endless gloom was brought on by the fact that she didn’t have a bloke. She envies other women’s beauty, especially her sister Vinnie’s (Jennifer Ehle), and is severely judgmental of others’ morality, particularly that of her gormless brother Austin (Duncan Duff). Apart from having a crush on a pastor, all she does, really, is mope around feeling sorry for herself. Out of the blue, Davies inserts horrific photographs from the Civil War that was being waged outside of the refined air of the Dickinson compound, but generally there is no external world related to.
Contrary to the intention of any bio-pic, the end result was that, though I now have a greater appreciation of the context of Dickinson’s poems, I like them less.