Right from the outset, we know that Emily will have to be punished. For some reason, as a teenager, she refuses to believe that she has to be saved from sins that she cannot imagine she has committed. Go figure. The road to salvation is managed by a school marm with a really bad lace cap pinned awkwardly to equally bad hair, and Emily is assured that her soul is destined for eternal perdition. Emily’s refusal to yield her reasonable questions to moronic morality is a harbinger of further rebellion against the Christian family values that will decide her fate in the narrative outcomes (cinematic judgment is partisan to predestination). A woman who chooses the life of the mind will necessarily suffer since interiority is clearly a form of pathology. Give up on marriage, obligatory conjugal sex, and procreation, and you are damned to a yet another hell. Which, in this case, is the wretched fires of someone else’s bad narrative of your life. Beware fame, all ye who write poems, or this could be your fate in years ahead!
Rescued by her family from the chilly girls’ school where her moral conscience was rebuked, Emily returns to her home in Amherst. For some mysterious Masterpiece Theater–inspired reason, the setting resembles the English countryside of a Merchant-Ivory film instead of a tightly plotted New England town. Here, Emily begins to indulge in private acts of writing that burst from her virgin soul. Oh, except she has Bright’s disease (not really a disease, but a term applied in the period to a whole raft of ills). Well, never mind the details. Never have the paroxysms of verse composition and those of a painful kidney disease been so artfully crafted into a single excuse for falling into fits. Why would anyone make this connection as a matter of course? Luckily Emily’s furniture has plenty of lathe-turned dowels to grip in the throes of her pains, reinforcing the intersection of domestic life, celibacy, and torments.
The simple act of a woman writing poetry would probably have been sufficiently fatal, given that Davies depicts the pleasures of verse production as a singularly perverse activity. He casts young Emily’s work as a kind of a nocturnal emission, stolen from sleep, when the rest of the household is tucked under their coverlets. Of course, she dutifully asks permission of her father for this transgression of routines and selfish wakefulness. Luckily, Father (played by Keith Carradine, who manages to wear mutton-chop whiskers without looking ridiculous) knows best and indulges his daughter in this peculiar pastime. He is clearly deluded into believing that poetry is harmless. (Later he controls his son, countering his desire to enlist in the fight against slavery, in spite of his earlier expression of abolitionist beliefs.) Though she professes to desire “only her family” and life in its slow-motion, dimly lit parlor, her only solace and relief within the suffocating confines of other people’s ordinariness is her writing. Every possible attempt is made to turn the Dickinson family home into a minimum-security madhouse where increasingly crazy (that is, unsociable and self-absorbed into her tasks) Emily is catered to by her improbably patient and enduring sister, whose occasional “tsk tsk” is impotent defense against bouts of spitting anger and mild hysteria — both signs of genius and thus to be forgiven. No matter that the poor poet is deprived of privacy, affirmation, or intellectual companionship, she must be “bitter” from the fact that her “plain” face attracts no suitors. Poetry, again, is portrayed as the solace of the unattractive. We knew there had to be something to turn to for comfort.
Emily is granted parental permission to submit her verse for publication, and in return receives unwelcome visits from editor and fans alike. By this point in the film, her irreverent best friend has gone off to exercise her wit in marriage, and her brother has brought home a bride to live close by, but Emily’s emotional state is already precarious. The punishment for writing will be spinsterhood and death, but it takes a long time for the latter to arrive. Hard to tell which is worse, the physical ills she conceals or the psychic ones she endures, but both are side effects of her literary fervor, wouldn’t you know? In case you missed the subtler hints, a genuine fire-and-brimstone preacher is brought in to force the father to kneel amid his children and pray for salvation. Protestantism is stern business, and poor Emily only manages a Sunday off from the wretched sermons of the sadistic preacher by suggesting she would prefer her own relationship with her soul. Given the austerity and pressure for conformity in the household, the reprieve is an absolute miracle. Father’s abiding cheer is made fully evident at the moment he sits for a daguerreotype portrait and in response to the photographer’s bid for a smile he replies, “I am smiling.” Gotta hand it to the guy, that kind of grim determination is the only thing that can get you through this wretched film.
The colossal ennui and forced companionship of evenings in the Amherst parlor is never lightened by recognition that the social spaces of parallel activity might have felt full and pleasurable — reading, starting at the fire, mending, or whatever. We are subject to a sensory deprivation experience about as excruciating as a water clock’s drip (lots of footage of door moldings, staircases, and, improbably, collections of fresh flowers in windows at all seasons in the New England climate). Firelight works wonders for eyes filled with tears, sparkling with the unbearable sadness of girl talk between sisters, pseudo-sisters, sort-of-sisters, and so on. Every intimate moment is accompanied by these tears, as is, of course, the norm with female creatures. The feminine realm dominates, though Emily’s brother, inexplicably Irish in accent, look, and general bearing, is always hanging out at the old family home so that he can read bits of the newspaper aloud and torment his increasingly house-bound sister. Emily’s eccentricities (handled pretty well by Cynthia Nixon, who seems to have been told to play the part of a woman consuming misery for breakfast, lunch, and her meager dinner) are punctuated by Protestant witticisms that are enough to wither any spirit. “I fear that heaven will be dull. And hell? Even duller, that will be the agony.” With side-splitters like these, the endless deaths could be considered comic relief.
Father dies. Mother dies, slowly, drooling and spilling in a post-stroke palsy with her dutiful daughters in full attendance. Sometime about now poor Emily puts on a white dress, though the rest of the family is in mourning. She wears this coarsely spun item, corset-less and shroud-like, shapeless as a nightgown for the whole rest of the film. Simple hygiene aside, this is clearly a bad sign. In response to the losses of her one friend, her married preacher-crush, her father, and her mother, she has begun the long business of dying herself. This is no doubt just punishment for wishing to have a few private thoughts in the pre-dawn hours. She never takes the garment off again, and for her remaining years, keeps faithfully to this dreary garment. Be careful what you wear if you are a woman poet, since once you dress for the casket you may hasten your way into it.
Music, when it appears in the film, is pure sensual sinfulness, except for hymn, and the first performance of a work by Schubert brings out the prude in Father and Aunt Elizabeth. When Schubert arrives again late in the film, the music greases the road to adultery, since the charming songstress (with a husband suffering some kind of venereal impediment to satisfying his wife’s needs) has only to lift her eyes to brother Austin to have him lift her skirts in turn. In fact, the sheer amount of clothing looks like a literal as well as virtual obstacle to serious engagement of anything but lips and hands, but in any case, the passionate coitus goes interruptus when the righteous Emily bursts in and expresses her spinsterly disgust. Mind and body clearly cannot both be satisfied, and as the former is closer to the unforgiving Protestant god, it must be served. The two lovers retreat, tails tucked, as it were, between legs. To be a woman poet is to denounce the pleasures of human intercourse, and the sensual equivalent of slamming shut one’s door is enacted constantly by Nixon in her demonstration of Dickinson’s moral rectitude.
In spite of the brilliance of Dickinson’s poems, registered by the response of her crush, Reverend Wadsworth, who answers her plea for some statement, please, anything at all (women poets are so pathetic, aren’t we?) to confirm the extraordinary character of the work, we are generally left to imagine that these byproducts of self-imposed reclusion and defensively bitter spinsterhood are merely the effluvia of a cloistered mind trying to imagine escape. Whoever wrote the script seems to have taken half the lines from 19th-century Protestant sermons and the other half from mawkishly maudlin melodramas. The Dickinson poems hang in the air. How different from Jim Jarmusch’s appreciation of the real function and production of poetry within a life lived. As portrayed here, poetry is a protest, the bitter residue of a life not lived.
No matter, water is thicker than blood, as we find, entertaining the “abstainer” wife-and-husband team who capture Emily’s heart while refusing tea, coffee, and even lemonade. We are treated to a glimpse of the seductive sermonizer proclaiming through a shadow cast on white lace drapes, and who can resist transcendence when it comes in the form of filtered sunlight and upraised arms. So male. So virile. Emily, who is always deserted by the ones she loves, finds herself alone and adrift, and this inward state is manifest, rather oddly, by that weird decision to place the family house in an isolated spot in the countryside. No wonder the poor girl is delusional — her town disappears along with her crushes, and she has to imagine a stranger stealing his way up the stairs to her room at night to console herself for all that loss. Sexual frustration, isolation, bitterness, and a slide into the edge of craziness are the natural consequences of being too bright, too driven, and too serious about poetry while inhabiting a woman’s body. Too bad the director did not supply Emily with a mass of stuffed animals, or weapons, or instruments of masochistic self-engagement. Or, at the very least, the faithful sister might have broken down once, just once, and served that rat. Instead, Emily is left to grab the arms and legs of the furniture to quell the pain and dies and dies and dies. Poetry, you see, is fatal in women. Where is Kelly Reichardt when we need her?
Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has written extensively on graphic design and digital aesthetics.