It took 130 years for Hollywood to catch up to the truth of who Emily Dickinson really was. Generations of American literature students knew her only as the reclusive spinster who managed to write poetry about all the experiences she supposedly wasn’t living. But recent years have been kinder to her memory — or at least more honest about it. Last year it was the dramatic reenactment-style feature film by Madeleine Olnek, “Wild Nights With Emily.” Before that, it was “A Quiet Passion,” starring Cynthia Nixon. And now AppleTV+ launches their new service with a series simply titled, “Dickinson.”
Hailee Steinfeld stars as the teenage Emily Dickinson, a free-spirited society girl in Amherst, Massachusetts. Unfolding in thirty-ish minute episodes, “Dickinson” explores Emily in her vivacious youth, a girl with a thirst for knowledge and dreams of getting out and seeing for herself how the world works. Emily must also navigate her complicated relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt). The two are best friends and secret lovers, and things get tricky when Sue agrees to marry Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe).
Within the first three episodes, personalities and distinct life circumstances are clearly established. Emily lives under the repressive authority of her father, Edward (Toby Huss), a lawyer and Treasurer at Amherst College. He believes the woman’s place is in the home and Emily — and the family — will be better served when she’s married off. Her mother, also named Emily (Jane Krakowski), is determined to bring such a blessed event about, courting suitors on her daughter’s behalf. Meanwhile, Sue’s entire family has died and she is essentially an orphan, making the Dickinsons an attractive alternative to being alone in the world.
Hailee Steinfeld is perfect for the version of Emily this series wants to show. She is energetic and funny, brilliant and unrefined. Steinfeld embodies an Emily Dickinson that is rebellious, who refuses to accept the role which society and her family would force upon her. She is the type of girl who will sneak onto the college campus to listen to a lecture, or throw a wild party and provide the opiates. Steinfeld is a modern girl and she shows us that Dickinson was ahead of her time, born to a world that wasn’t ready for her. This is accentuated by the use of a modern soundtrack the includes Lizzo, Billie Eilish, and even Steinfeld herself, with the new single “Afterlife.”
But as much as Emily wants to break away from the lot to which she has been born, her family and community are all too willing to maintain the status quo. Emily should be married, and so should her brother Austin. Poor younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) wants only to find true love and be the wife Emily refuses to be. The fact that she desperately desires the very thing Emily runs from would be enough to create an interesting dynamic between the girls. Except that poor Lavinia is not only thwarted by boys that refuse to see her. Even her family simply laughs off her every effort to land a husband. Baryshnikov is truly great at bringing a depth to Lavinia’s eternal optimism.
And this is the magic at the heart of “Dickinson.” Each character has their opportunities to live and breathe and introduce themselves to the world. They are interesting and deep and far more complex than they might seem at first. Emily is certainly the focus of the story, but it is never only about her. We get plenty of opportunities to understand the people around her too. The ones that helped shape who she was and what she would eventually become. And how the rest of the world would eventually get to know her in entirely wrong ways.
“Dickinson” was created by Alena Smith, who displays a level of understanding of the poet that is deeper than most. She finds brilliant ways to bring us into not only Emily’s world, but her mind and her heart. Incorporating Dickinson’s own poems, Smith introduces many of her words in clever ways. For instance, Emily flirts nightly with Death, who appears in a horse-drawn coach and takes the form of Wiz Khalifa. She meets with all sorts of wild ideas and each time she does, Dickinson’s own handwriting scrawls across the screen, fiery and passionate and desperate to leap off of the page. A new generation of girls will discover Emily Dickinson through her own words and it is majestic.
“Dickinson” is clever and bawdy and hilarious. It tells a somewhat unusual story in a rather unusual way and leaves the audience needing to know what could possibly happen next. Steinfeld has already made a name for herself with an incredible breakthrough performance in “True Grit,” as well as franchise films like the second and third “Pitch Perfect” movies, “Bumblebee,” and the highly acclaimed indie, “Edge of Seventeen.” Now, with “Dickinson,” she shows even more of what audiences already love about her, and she does it in service to an artist who was misunderstood, lied about, and deprived of the few things she ever wanted in life. Hailee Steinfeld helps restore those things to Emily Dickinson, and in doing so, makes this series a must.
“Dickinson” is now available on Apple TV+. We were provided access to the first three episodes for this review.