Top photo: Winter twilight scene; rare moment on a windy snowy evening. A back-lit bird feather alights on branch and remains for awhile. Poet Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul…”
Love the author? Rereading something pithy? Here are films – fiction and documentary about the person.
A Quiet Passion 2017 Directed by Terence Davies. Cynthia Nixon is Emily. Begins with Dickinson’s childhood to give us a glimpse of personality roots. Disinterested in marriage because she’s, in fact, gay, love is secret. The film doesn’t dwell, but rather portrays her trajectory, the family and era in which she navigated. With Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff and Keith Carradine. Somewhat placid, taking its subject seriously. Less Hollywood than the subsequent Wild Nights. Free on Amazon Prime.
Wild Nights with Emily 2018 Directed by Madeleine Olnek. Molly Shannon as Dickinson. As the romance between Dickinson and Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler) can’t be public, Susan marries Dickinson’s brother, Austin (Kevin Seal) to stay close. Twenty years later, the clandestine relationship remains with houses close together.
One of Dickinson’s visitors, Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz), moves to the area and unabashedly begins an affair with Austin. When Emily dies, Mabel discovers a chest of poems and letters. She helps have them published, making sure Susan’s name is eliminated. Fairly accurate as knowledge goes. An upbeat Dickinson is manifest. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
The Barretts of Wimpole Street 1934 Adapted from the play by Ruldolf Besier. Directed by Sidney Franklin. Depicts the real life romance of Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and Robert Browning (Frederic March) despite opposition by her oppressive father, Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton). The film implies Edward may have raped some of his children and is against all carnal passion as he can’t control his own proclivities.
Having fallen in love with her poetry, Browning courts Barrett who is frail, but not nearly so much as her father states, using it as an excuse to isolate his daughter. They correspond, meet secretly, and eventually flee. Numerous love letters from the couple remain and have been published. Featuring Maureen O’Sullivan as Elizabeth’s sister with her own romantic issues. Its being dated works for the film’s dignity. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Total Eclipse 1995 Based on the Christopher Hampton play. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. The tempestuous relationship of 19th century poets Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) during which both were immensely creative. Told in flashback. Rimbaud sends the older (married) Verlaine his poetry and is invited to the latter’s father-in-law’s chateau. Verlaine is unexpectedly seduced though the young man is boorish, indiscreet, and sadistic. He abandons his wife.
Things come to a head when Verlaine shoots Rimbaud and is sentenced to prison for sodomy and bodily harm. By the time the two meet again, Verlaine has converted to Christianity. Rimbaud is appalled. Renouncing literature, he travels, ending up in the mid east until illness takes him back to Paris. He dies at 37. Addicted now to absinthe, Verlaine imagines him. Visceral. Rent on Netflix.
A Poet in New York 2014 BBC Written by Andrew Davies. Directed by Aisling Walsh. The story of Dylan Thomas’ (Tom Hollander) last trip to New York under a booking arrangement with devoted friend, John Malcom Brinnin, secretly in love with him (Ewen Bremmer) and nurse-maided by secretary/occasional lover, Liz Reitell (Phoebe Fox).
This was the trip Thomas lead a reading of the just finished Under Milkwood at the 92nd Street Y and eventually drank himself to death at The White Horse Tavern. Splendid production. Shows us his crafty charm without being too sympathetic. Hollander is smaller and less round, but otherwise channels Thomas. Essie Davis is wonderful as Caitlin. Free with Amazon Prime.
Set Fire to The Stars 2015 Loosely based on Dylan Thomas in America by John Malcom Brinnin. Directed by Andy Goddard. Co-written and Starring Celan Jones. Black and white. Elijah Wood as Brinnin tries to keep Thomas sober during a mostly upstate tour. Focus seems to be on him rather than Thomas, a pity as Jones is very good. What begins as evocative recitation is aborted or drowned out by soundtrack. Script is periodically, irritatingly surreal. Rent on Amazon Prime.
In Search of Walt Whitman 2020 Directed by Andrew D. Kaplan. Richard S. Rose plays Whitman. Documentary. Interweaves biography, readings, talking head experts, photography at historical locations. Whitman rises from hardscrabble childhood to write Leaves of Grass, published with his own money, which is thought to revolutionize literature. He cares for Civil War soldiers in Washington composing poetry about loss and healing, has a debilitating stroke, and lives out his days continuing to write. A good introduction to the man. Free with Amazon Prime.
Sylvia 2003 Directed by Christine Jeffs. Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Michael Gambon. By the time poet Sylvia Plath gets a Fulbright to Cambridge University, she’s published a poem, attended Smith on literary scholarship, and tried to commit suicide. She meets fellow scribe Ted Hughes at a party, they fall in love, marry, and return to the states, both teaching at her alma mater. Ted is more popular than Sylvia would like.
The couple returns to England where Ted, who creates more easily than she, establishes a reputation while Sylvia raises two children and struggles. He continues unfaithful. When his wife kicks him out, Ted moves in with and impregnates his mistress. Sylvia seals off her children’s room and gases herself. Ariel is published posthumously to acclaim. Bleak and effective, but not wrenching. Rent on Netflix.
All photos: Bigstock