The premature burial
Attempt something often enough and sooner or later you get it right. Attempt the biopic often enough and someone was bound to hit the bullseye sometime, not so much telling a subject's story with reasonable accuracy as using said subject's life as grist to express the filmmaker's obsessions on his own stylistic terms--thinking Wong Kar Wai's lush narratively wayward The Grandmaster or Jane Campion's austere Bright Star with its focus on the female protagonist (John Keat's great love Fanny Brawne). Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion does something as interesting if not more so: cast Emily Dickinson--one of America's greatest poets--in what essentially reads as a horror film.
"For each ecstatic instant" sets the tone, a poem about the heavy price paid for each moment of joy. We find the young Emily (Emma Bell) already buried alive, not just in 19th century New England (where society frowns on women singing on stage) but in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where she gazes out a window the camera approaching gingerly from behind. A prisoner gazing at--Freedom? The world beyond? Face coyly hidden we're forced to wonder: What expression on her face? What thoughts or emotions behind her expression?
When Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) pays a visit the camera does a 360 degree pirouette of their living room starting with Emily and covering along its way each member of the Dickinson family: Elizabeth, father Edward (Keith Carradine), brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), sister Vinnie (Rose Williams), mother Emily (Joanna Bacon, possibly my favorite performance in the film). As the silence grows unbearable Emily with "The Heart asks Pleasure--first--" names a diminishing list of demands she asks out of life: pleasure, relief, artificial relief, unconsciousness, death. The camera settling back on Emily's face captures her unspoken dismay.
Then an interlude: Mater Emily asks young Emily to play on the piano; young Emily obliges with "Abide With Me" and as she plays Mater recalls listening to a young boy with a sweet voice who once sang that song--her story suggesting Gretta Conroy's memory of Michael Furey dying at her family's front gate, in Joyce's "The Dead." Mater in many ways resembles daughter--in her tendency to solitude, in her capacity for a rich inner life belying the paucity of her outer--and as she relates with trembling voice how the boy died at the age of 19 you wonder at Davies' ability to tie mother to daughter to Joyce's memorably wayward housewife in a moment of quiet mortality.
Aunt Elizabeth--who Vinnie Austin Emily have mocked mercilessly throughout her visit--takes leave. Emily looks unaccountably distraught; "I hope you live for a hundred years," she tells her aunt. "What a repellent idea!" Aunt Elizabeth responds, then gently adds: "I'm not afraid of death Emily nor should you be." As camera follows carriage Emily intones "I went to thank Her-- But She Slept--" while Aunt Elizabeth rolls away past Emily's ability to thank her. They enjoy puncturing Aunt Elizabeth's pretentions but their affection is surprisingly strong.
Then a bit of Davies' own poetry: Family members sitting for photographic portraits and as they pose the camera draws close and the faces gain and lose, visually summarizing Dickinson's themes of aging and the passage of time. Keith Carradine's patriarchal Edward loses hair gains an air of dignity and exhaustion; Benjamin Wainwright's Austin transforms into Duncan Duff gains character but loses his bright insouciance; Rose Williams' young pretty Vinnie blooms into Jennifer Ehle's mandarin beauty. Of Joanna Bacon's Emily we see nothing; she sits up in her bedroom alone.
Emma Bell is fresh lovely, Cynthia Nixon over fifty; what their Emily loses in plainspoken loveliness she gains in gravity an irrefutable sense of self a steady laser gaze.
We get the measure of Nixon's Emily in a scene where she sits scribbling at a desk when her father asks if she will go to Sunday church. She refuses; her father admonishes: "Your soul is no trivial matter." "I agree father," she replies. "That's why I'm so meticulous in guarding its independence." To the words of "I reckon--when I count at all--" she lists by order of importance: "First--Poets--" finally "the Heaven of God--" Then second thoughts: "the First so seems To Comprehend the Whole--" she muses then revises the list: "Poets--All--" We realize we're watching her do clean copies of her works she will collect in handstitched booklets that the sister will discover after the poet's death, manuscripts Vinnie and editor Mabel Loomis Todd will call fascicles. Her reply to her father turns out to be the stone cold truth: she is being meticulous about her soul.
When Austin marries Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) Emily declares they will be good friends. When Emily holds Austin's firstborn in her arms she whispers "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" in his ear--both being outsiders to society (one freshly arrived the other a woman and hence socially marginalized) they're instant friends, the baby's intense blue eyes matching Emily's.
Comes the Civil War: Austin wishes to sign up but patriarchal Edward refuses to give permission; a stormy argument follows after which Austin relents and walks out, the rest of the family following. To the words of "To fight aloud, is very brave" Edward stands alone in the room his eyes reflecting sorrowful loss, even if he won the argument. Civil war or family quarrel, Davis seems to be telling us, there are no winners.
The war itself Davies refuses to dramatize or glamorize in any way; all he will allow are the lines of "There is a word" under which run colorized* photographs of dead from various battles, the combined number of casualties--the price paid for each victory or defeat--written under the titles. It's arguably Davies' most daring juxtaposition: while the poem mentions 'swords' 'epaulettes' 'marksmen' the poem is really about a man's thoughtless wounding of another's feelings through use of a word. Emily's poem ends on the word 'forgot' though onscreen she stops a few verses short, leaving us free to guess: if Davies is saying the war was caused by nothing more and nothing less than wounded feelings well there's truth to that (Emily fuming on the subject of slavery: "(it) should never have flourished in this country in the first place!"); if Davies is saying that the most wounding act we can commit is to forget the war dead well there's truth to that as well.
*(Why colorized? I'm guessing Davies didn't want the images to wrench attention away from the conventionally colored dramatic scenes (though the photographs--unfortunately in my book--have the washed-out artificial-looking palette of digital enhancement).)
Marriages are a happy occasion or at least are supposed to be. Emily feels abandoned when her vivacious friend Vryling Wilder Buffum ("sounds like an anagram!" declares Catherine Bailey, who plays Buffum) marries herself off; their scenes together have the genteelly impious wit of Oscar Wilde or at least Whit Stillman--presumably 1) to give an idea of Emily's humor and spirit and 2) to better contrast the film's darker second half. To the words of "The Dying need but little, Dear" the wedding party leaves Emily standing alone in a row of pews as if having just attended a funeral; she sinks down to a bench the camera (and the film's tone) following till the poem ends. A solemn moment a portent of losses to come--
"Look back on Time" suggests a death. Not sure who they're talking about till we see Edward laid out in his box, head sticking out to right of the screen feet all the way to the left. Emily's earlier loss foreshadows this far larger one foreshadows the finale--
As Emily recites "Of so divine a Loss" the funeral procession starts off from the Homestead (the Dickinson residence); the camera rises past horse and carriage to catch Emily at a window (she has apparently refused to attend the burial) weeping inconsolably--a moment of dramatic and visual apotheosis paid on our behalf (remember how "For each ecstatic instant" insists such pleasures have a price) freely and heavily by Emily.
Davies reserves his most rapturous--and most terrifying--passage not for a Dickinson poem but for a sentiment apparently extrapolated from her poems: "He will mount the stairs at midnight," we hear as Davies shows us the door--partly lit by sunlight--to Emily's room. Her voice grows distressed as day wanes and the light slides away; shadows gather her voice chokes she cries out: "O please let him come! Let him not forget me!" A little too on-the-nose for Dickinson but as a cri de coeur fashioned for the film it's an unforgettable moment: suddenly the shadows about the doorway take on a mortal aspect and the door's white wood resembles the cover of a casket freshly hammered shut.
One can't help but link the image of that upright door with the image of Edward's coffin stretching across the screen, link the father's burial with her metaphoric own, link this confinement with the confinement she experienced at Holyoke Seminar--only this time self-willed. There she punished the Seminar's headmistress (Sara Vertongen) with steely defiance, here she punishes the whole world by withholding her presence--by in effect punishing herself.
Suddenly her door magically swings open; the camera pushes forward to Emily's face; we hear the hymn "Since I first saw your face" (collected and arranged by Thomas Ford but written and composed anonymously). As the woman sings "What? I that lov'd and you that lik'd shall we begin to wrangle?" on that last word the singer's voice skids into an impossibly high note--a shriek almost--Emily's eyes shut as if overwhelmed, and a saxophone note sounds out distorted and low, like anguished bedsprings accompanying that orgasmic shriek. Image and sound ambiguous sensuous eerie (Is it an assignation? An attempted rape?), capable of giving one (as with the very best horror) both goosepimples and a throbbing erection.
Emily's condition (she's diagnosed with Bright's Disease an archaic term for a number of kidney conditions) takes center stage as we hear "This world is not Conclusion." Her words insist on a world beyond this one as she takes a decisive step closer to that world, her body seized by convulsions. On the last line heard** "And Crucifixions, shown--" the camera glides up from her side to directly overhead looking down her shuddering body, and we can't help but be reminded of Christ's body shuddering on the cross.
**(The poem continues on a more optimistic note, a note that for Davies' purposes do not contribute anything more to the scene)
Parallel scene: Mater Emily has a stroke and lies on bed before the camera, arms to either side (again the cruciform pose); the sisters cradle each arm, gently wiping them clean. Biographies called the mother 'distant' though Davies doesn't seem to think so: this mater may be sickly and quiet and fond of keeping to herself (the way Emily does later in her adult life) but she does love her family who--as we see--does love her back.
To "Our journey had advanced--" which describes the pause in a long trek to take in the lay of the land, Emily pauses in a chair (To take in the lay of the land?) before standing up to totter the brief distance to her bed just as she has a convulsion attack, her last one. As Emily drums out a ghastly tattoo on her mattress (Nixon's performance here heroic in its selflessness) the poem ends with "God--at every Gate--" A hope expressed? Or a fear?
Emily lies in state the camera again gliding towards and over her, hovering directly above; as we see the same pose her father Edward assumed body stretched across the screen (only Emily's head is to the left her feet to the right) we realize what has occurred: father and daughter are reunited at last.
To "My life closed twice before its close--" Vinnie presents a bouquet to Emily, the camera following as she walks up to the coffin; with bouquet laid she turns to gaze out a window, and the image recalls a boatman guiding a funeral gondola to its final destination. The poem's last two lines--about parting and heaven and hell--are perhaps the two most ambiguous most powerful lines in her work, perhaps in all of American poetry: Is leaving Vinnie hell enough? Is leaving Vinnie all we know of heaven? Who knows?
While Vinnie gazes Emily continues with the ending stanza of "Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord," which seem pretty much self-explanatory: "Goodbye to the Life I used to live--And the World I used to know--And kiss the Hills, for me, just once--Then--I am ready to go!"
"Because I could not stop for Death--" is an obvious choice for Emily's passing but Davies takes a page from Dreyer and realizes the burial as a serene gliding journey to her final resting place. The last few verses--"since then--tis Centuries--" suggest a chillingly remote perspective of time's passage as we peer into the hole dug in the ground. Davies conceived of a lively Emily a defiant Emily spirited and full of life; is it any wonder that rather than submit Death is forced to accommodate her on her terms?
With "This is my letter to the World" Emily spares a thought to her legacy--which (from where she sat in her room) may have seemed a paltry prospect, but which her words with uncanny prescience suggest will be contentious even controversial. To accompany the poem Davies shows us the Emily we've been watching--Cynthia Nixon--morph back into the younger Emma Bell morph into the real Emily, a summary of the faces we've seen the film we've followed the life depicted. As Emily commits her memory to unseen hands, Davies commits this film to us for judgment; in many ways Davies is Emily, his identification with her--from her sense of family and mortality to her neglect by the outside world--never closer or more intense.
First published in Businessworld 11.10.17