It was likely the harshest six-word movie review I will ever hear, and it came from the slender, grandfatherly gentleman who walked out of the theater ahead of me. Behind us in the dim cavern the credits were still scrolling up the front wall, but here in the westward-facing lobby the evening sun glared in our faces. His white-haired friend pushed through the doors into the summery air, saying, “That was pretty good,” but I heard a question in her voice. As he followed her out I caught his matter-of-fact, but crushing six-word reply. “She took too long to die.”
“She took too long to die!” Take that, screenwriter and director. Take that, respected actress who played the lead role. Out of his earshot, I told my friends the gentleman’s review, “She took too long to die,” and we all agreed that he was right. (Spoiler alert.) For maybe twenty minutes, which felt like forty, we film-goers saw her body failing in a painful and frightening way. The acting couldn’t have been more vivid. It was so well done. So how can we say that the character took too long to die?
The movie was a costume drama, with mid-nineteenth century dresses and suits, flowery gardens, and evenings necessarily filled with witty conversation because it was so hard to get basic cable installed during the Civil War. The hero and victim was Emily Dickinson, who in real life nosed out Walt Whitman in a photo finish to become America’s best 19th century poet. She was a word person. She worked out the philosophy of her life with sentences, not with oil paintings or business plans or stolen bases. She met the world through language.
But in those last twenty minutes—or was it two hours?—the movie didn’t let her speak. In bed, attended by her sister, she shuddered in pain, and then later, in bed, attended by the whole family, more shuddering in pain. Plainly it was very bad to get certain diseases back in the day. But that’s old news, isn’t it? Emily took too long to die because the movie stopped letting her say what was on her mind, that is, stopped letting her live.
People I have known have used their final days to keep working on the meanings of their lives. When a nurse asked one friend, “How ya doing?” he replied, “I don’t know how I’m doing. I never had to die before, so I don’t know if I’m doing it right.” My grandfather in his final week said that since he had been able to take care of his wife to her last day, and all their children were launched in their lives, he felt that going now would be okay.
If the body allows, the spirit presses on, steering a sea-worthy craft by stars of our own choosing. We’re in it for the meaning. The real Emily Dickinson knew that. The brain is wider than the sky, she wrote. The brain is wider than the sky, for put them side by side, the one the other will contain with ease and you beside. For the real Emily, our expansive brain was where the action is. A movie that forgets that about its flickering characters has run off the rails. The old gentleman in the sunset-filled theater lobby was right. A person can take too long to die if the spirit has gone out. But that’s the last thing real flesh and blood people must ever let happen.