Hailee Steinfeld puts pen to paper in Apple TV+’s light and death-obsessed take on Emily Dickinson’s teen years.
There have been two recent films about the life, loves, and poetry of Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon portrayed the writer in Terence Davies’ critically acclaimed drama, A Quiet Passion, and Molly Shannon starred in the sillier, romantic comedy Wild Nights with Emily earlier this year. With Apple TV+’s Dickinson, the poet’s life is told through the eyes of a teenage version of Emily Dickinson, and it breathes urgent life into the stuffy genre of literary biopics.
Hailee Steinfeld, with her gorgeous face and locks of long, dark, brown hair, is a teen like any other, except, you know, she’s destined to become one of the most famous poets in the world. Her mother, played by Jane Krakowski, makes it her mission to marry Emily off, and her father doesn’t approve of Emily’s writings—he blows up whenever his daughter admits that she will have some of her work published. Emily is constantly thinking of death, and has visions of him literally showing up with a ghostly horse-drawn carriage to whisk her away.
Because Dickinson is more Euphoria meets Riverdale with a dark, comic edge, it takes the pressure off Steinfeld to become a legendary historical figure. We connect with her easily, and her flights of fancy are charming and, honestly, endearing at times. She’s annoyed that her brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe) is engaged to her best friend and object of her affection, Sue (Ella Hunt), and she brushes off the gentle romantic advances from the boys that fawn over her.
When Wiz Khalifa pops up as Death, your head might spin or laugh, but you keep watching because you want to see if this oddball experiment pays off. It cunningly depicts how women have always been told what they should be doing or how they should do it. No, it’s not a new theme, but it remains maddening that Emily isn’t allowed to do certain things like go see a science lecture in a men’s hall (don’t worry, Steinfeld in drag is a hoot). The Dickinson household is one of the most entertaining spaces, and Krakowski’s continued frustration of her daughter is amusing even though there are shades of Jenna Maroney and Jacqueline White still lingering around (it’s Krakowski’s delightful clipped delivery and I will follow it to the ends of the earth).
With its modern music and language, it does take a few moments (or even an episode) to adjust to Dickinson‘s tone. It walks a fine line between going very silly and self-serious, but it leaves you wanting more every episode. I constantly wondered how this slightly angsty version of Emily Dickinson’s life would go, and doesn’t that experimentation already deem it a success?
Dickinson debuts on November 1 on Apple TV+. The first three episodes were seen for this review.