Poet. Recluse. "Spinster."
While Emily Dickinson's work is known to anyone who sat through high school English, only the most superficial details of her life are common knowledge. A new film about the 19th-century American poet, however, is ready to shed some light.
Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon plays the elder Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, an elegant, beautifully shot biopic that opens on American screens this Friday. Incredibly, it's the first dramatic portrayal of the Massachusetts-born poet, though her work was been referenced heavily in everything from Jane Campion's The Piano to a 1980 episode of The Facts of Life. For Nixon, the film is an opportunity to demonstrate once again her ability to veer from warmth and vulnerability to prickliness.
Directed by Terence Davies of The Deep Blue Sea fame, the drama begins with an early depiction of Dickinson's rebellious streak; as a student — played by an impressive Emma Bell (The Walking Dead) — Emily rejects her teacher's offer to proclaim her devotion to Christianity. The decision brands her a "no-hoper."
Dickinson's independent and oftentimes contrarian nature is a recurring theme. Religion was a particular topic with which she wrestled. While privately spiritual, she bristled at others' efforts to impose their own convictions upon her. Rather than converting her to their way of thinking, they only triggered more debate and doubt.
Though she never married, the film shows Dickinson grappling with the idea of settling down. One minute she's considering it, but dismisses herself as too plain to attract a suitor. The next, she tells a friend that she needs nothing more than the company of her family. When that friend accepts a proposal, Dickinson grieves. It's not jealousy; it's the pain of losing a companion amidst the 19th-century reality of what marriage meant for a woman.
As the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts notes, much has been made of Dickinson's love life, or lack thereof. Did her female friendships turn romantic? Were there any notable suitors? Did she have a relationship with her father's widowed friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, as their intimate correspondence has suggested? Biographers have plenty of theories, but Davies' film offers few definitive answers. There's no mention of Lord, but there is a scene in which Dickinson professes her love for Reverend Charles Wadsworth, aka the man on the receiving end of her passionate "Master Letters." Unfortunately for her, he's married, albeit to a stick-in-the-mud who thinks drinking anything more flavorful than water is sinful.
And what of her eccentricities? Scholars have long debated why Dickinson grew increasingly reclusive in her later years (the film's final moments are incredibly claustrophobic) and what the symbolism was, if any, of her habit of wearing white dresses. The film suggests that her father's 1874 death may have triggered her feelings of alienation, though it's just as possible that her declining health was responsible. Fittingly, so much about her life remains shrouded in mystery.
We may never fully understand every last detail of Dickinson's private life — and perhaps she wouldn't have wanted it any other way — but the film does offer a well-rounded portrait of both her words and her personality. You'll leave with a new admiration for this woman and her wit.