Peter Bradshaw / The Guardian
In this film, Cynthia Nixon has the face of someone with a secret. She plays the poet Emily Dickinson, and her face is fever-bright with irony and wit, then loneliness and fear. You can see how emotions are somehow stored in that face provisionally, being refined and saved for later – for the poetry she writes during the night. It is a face that changes as she grows older and moves along the spectrum of genius, publishing little or nothing, angry about the non-consolation of “posterity”. Terence Davies’s film and Nixon’s tremendous performance reminded me of WH Auden saying that Matthew Arnold “thrust his gift in prison till it died”. It isn’t Dickinson’s gift for poetry that gets thrust in prison but her gift for love, and not thrust by her, either. Her poems are periodically quoted by Nixon in voiceover and, with these shrewd selections, Davies may be playfully suggesting that their seductive rhythmic canter has a tiny technical echo with Longfellow, whom Emily professes to despise.
Emma Bell plays the young Emily, who is agnostic and free-thinking, and bullied at a tyrannically puritan Christian school from which she is miraculously rescued by her warm and kindly family, to be welcomed into a protective and relatively liberal circle. She grows to adulthood – a process represented in a strangely eerie digital transformation of her photographic portrait – and is portrayed by Nixon from then on. Jennifer Ehle is excellent as her affectionate sister Vinnie; Duncan Duff is their adored brother Austin, a lawyer who marries Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), a woman who confesses with sisterly intimacy to Emily how the conjugal duties are to be endured in exchange for the blessings of family. Austin grows to despise himself for shirking military service in the civil war, at the insistence of their kindly but stern father Edward, played by Keith Carradine.
At first, Emily’s life is odd, cloistered, but happy enough. Her father allows her the latitude to write which a husband would never permit; she has some poems published, though tin-eared publishers mess with her punctuation. Personal calamities ensue: her inspiringly witty and rebellious friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) meekly submits to marriage and moves away – a rather Austenian betrayal, like Charlotte Lucas marrying Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Others whom Emily loves die or disappear from her life or let her down, and she succumbs to illness and disillusion, dressing in strange anti-mourning white and scorning visitors. Emily and her sister talk about George Eliot and the Brontës, though not about her Massachusetts contemporary Louisa May Alcott. And no one is tactless enough to mention Dickens’s Miss Havisham.
This is an appropriately literary film, and has something in common with Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. It has the elegance and detail of a drawing room comedy. Emily furiously denounces the “semi-recumbent position” in which she discovers her errant brother – a phrasing taken directly from Lady Bracknell. There is a superb scene in which pious visitors will not accept the stimulants of tea or coffee, and in the ensuing ghastly embarrassment, the water jug clinks deafeningly against the teacups. For all the Americanness, I believe Davies has absorbed something from a director about whom he has spoken with his own quiet passion: Robert Hamer, who crafted the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets.
The title is a paradox, like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Quietness and passion have a dysfunctional coexistence, and Dickinson experiences repression and misery of a sort, though she certainly appreciates the creative freedom of spinsterhood, and the possibilities of publishing anonymously are real enough. But more than literary fame, Emily wants love – or perhaps she feels that these should come together, in a pure blessedness of recognition.
Davies brings to the movie what I think is a religious sensibility, and superimposes that on Dickinson’s doubt and scepticism. The poet’s illness worsens, and Davies creates an ecstasy and mysterious transfiguration for her in whitewashed rooms that look like they belong in northern Europe. As the film progresses, Davies’s camera seems to come in closer, transcribing faces in more painterly detail, and the extended scenes of pain and anxiety are unbearable.
This is a moving and engrossing film, and a wonderful performance from Nixon, who combines delicacy with angularity; vulnerability and defiance. Dickinson becomes radiant with loneliness. The nearest she has to faith or a belief in the afterlife is the tortured question of whether her work will survive. Davies’s film keeps its own faith with that.