It is not easy to create a clever biopic on an artist, much less one that spent most her later years confined to her bedroom as a recluse. One of the many reasons that artist biopics fail is because the writer/director chooses to include too much—sort of a crib to coffin approach, wherein we are only given surface events, rushed timelines and bad accents. This, however, does not stop the artistic mind from occasioning these films as comfort. How many films on Van Gogh do we need? Is anything new uncovered? Any insights? Probably not, yet audiences will continue to witness.
So, one can imagine my delight in learning that there was not only a biopic on Emily Dickinson, but also one that is excellent in itself. One way to measure this is to ask if the film could stand alone without the biography. Is the writing enough to carry it? For Terence Davies’s 2016 film A Quiet Passion, it is. We all know the story of The Belle of Amherst—that she did not title any of her poems, that she used random capitalization, random dashes, that she would write on the backs of receipts and napkins, and dutifully organize her poems into collective heaps tied with string. She was known to wear only white amid her later years and up to the very final days of her death, to never leave her room.
Emily Dickinson is the first poet that ever moved me, and quite possibly the only poet that could have gotten me into literature at all. Sure, this is speculation, as perhaps I would have managed another entry into literary lavishness, but for me it was Emily. I even had the Julie Harris readings on cassette, which I would play as I slept. (Given to me on my 16th birthday, I believe.) […]