Rescuing Emily

recently recovered photo of Emily Dickinson

The movie A Quiet Passion has to be one of the worst biopics I’ve ever seen (in a category stuffed with more turkey’s than Perdue). It nearly managed to obliterate the memory of Emily Dickinson’s delicate and beautiful poetry (‘hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul’ is no where to be found). The movie is full of excruciating longueurs, and hammy acting. My friend Joan and I both exclaimed in unison as the credits rolled: ‘Thank god for Jennifer Ehle’.

Some critics swooned over it. But fortunately others were still awake enough at the end to beat it back with a stick. Variety’s Guy Lodge remarked: ‘Davies’ script, drawn from no specified sources… [is].. ‘an emotional straitjacket of variously arch storytelling tones’. As Jessica Kian from The Playlist noted most of the dialogue is an homage to the subjunctive mood: “Were I but…” “Had I only…” “Would that I could just…”. It is, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote, the kind of excessively correct English up with which it is difficult to put. And here is Lee Marshall from Screen Daily: ‘At first the tone is stiff and oddly comic, with a whiff of amateur theatricals: it feels at times like an Oscar Wilde play done by a director who’s read too much Brecht.’

For me, the worst part of A Quiet Passion was not the starchy dialogue or weird acting, but the caricature of Emily Dickinson as a sexually-repressed neurotic hidden indoors who screeches and lashes out all the time. I just don’t buy it. It doesn’t fit with the passionate, flirtatious, (Wild Nights! Wild Nights!), funny, nature loving person in the poems. And what of the two strange intense women who dominated Emily’s short life (she died at 55); her brother Austin’s wife Susan who Emily seems to have been in love with and who lived next door; and Austin’s mistress Mabel Loomis, who was obsessed with Emily and who after Emily’s death, published the first book of her poems and changed some of the dedications including (say authors Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith in their book Open Me Carefully) removing Susan’s name from love poems like this one –

Her breast is fit for pearls,

But I was not a ‘Diver’ –

Her brow is fit for thrones

But I have not a crest,

Her heart is fit for home –

I – a Sparrow – build there

Sweet of twigs and twine

My perennial nest.

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