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Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019

Dickinson review: Hailee Steinfeld’s punk rock period comedy is worth Apple TV subscription (if only for 7 days)

Dickinson review: Perhaps the most on-brand show in Apple TV+’s slate of original content, the punk rock period comedy, starring Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, is infused with millennial wisdom.

tv Updated: Nov 07, 2019 18:51 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Dickinson review: Hailee Steinfeld shines in Apple TV+’s punk rock period comedy.
Dickinson review: Hailee Steinfeld shines in Apple TV+’s punk rock period comedy.(Apple)

Cast - Hailee Steinfeld, Toby Huss, Jane Krakowski, Adrian Enscoe

Like a slick new update of reliable old concepts, Dickinson is perhaps the most on-brand show in Apple’s newly launched streaming service. Starring a brilliant Hailee Steinfeld as poet Emily Dickinson, the half-hour period comedy brings a delightful punk rock sensibility to her endlessly intriguing and, some would say, worryingly grim story.

Tonally, it’s sort of like Sofia Coppola’s Maria Antoinette, and a little bit like Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It’s a show that views history through a modern prism, scored to a hip-hop soundtrack and, perhaps fittingly, one that uses language as a tool to highlight the odds at which Emily was with the world she had the misfortune of being born in. In one scene, her mother describes her to a potential suitor as ‘frugal and punctilious.’ Emily, sitting in a decidedly unladylike manner -- legs splayed, poor posture -- shoots back, “Yeah, I’m a catch.”

Watch the Dickinson trailer here 

Creator and executive producer Alena Smith allows grown-ups to speak a more archaic style of English, while Emily and her peers speak like millennials. She’s a pacifist, a champion of environmental conservation, and strongly against the notion of marriage. She’s woke. Had she lived two centuries later, you could almost imagine her leading the campaign for Bernie Sanders (and being wickedly popular on Instagram).

Disappointed after a meeting with her hero, Henry David Thoreau (played by John Mulaney of all people), Emily calls him a ‘di*k’ and storms out of his house. She can barely stand being around people, having convinced herself that a life of solitude is the only sort of life worth living, or worth striving for. She is, instead, more comfortable embracing the idea of death, personified in the show by a famous person whom I cannot possibly reveal here.

Death and immortality were key themes in Emily’s poems. A helpful title card, scrawled in the poet’s eccentric handwriting, explains at the beginning of episode one that Emily, like the photographer Vivian Meier and painter Vincent Van Gogh, became successful posthumously. She published less than a dozen compositions during her lifetime; most of her approximately 2000 poems were revealed to the world after her death. In her later years, she barely left her room, and died after leaving behind strict instructions for her entire catalogue to be destroyed. It wasn’t.

Emily’s poems are often scrawled across the screen, sort of like Sherlock’s text messages. It’s probably no coincidence that Emily’s quirky punctuation and capitalisation often mimic a hastily sent WhatsApp.

A still from Dickinson, available on Apple TV+.
A still from Dickinson, available on Apple TV+. ( Apple )

Dickinson, the show, restricts itself to being a rather superficial examination of a complicated character. Calling it ‘frivolous’, however, would be unfair. Incidentally, this could be a fair criticism of Apple’s The Morning Show, which is supposed to be a hard-hitting look at feminism in a post-MeToo world. Dickinson, meanwhile, with its breezy teen-comedy vibe and Alanis Morissette attitude, makes no such promises. Whether or not it should have is another conversation. Of course, shows like Skins and more recently, Euphoria, have proven that challenging storytelling for younger audiences is not only possible, but also necessary. This needn’t mean that Dickinson must fall under the same category.

Its episodic structure, however, feels too outdated a format for a subject that was so forward-looking. While the first couple of episodes, directed by David Gordon Green – only four can currently be written about – mostly function as table-setting, episode three, directed by Lynn Shelton, remixes an all too familiar premise: the parents are away and the kids have the house all to themselves. In one episode, Emily, disallowed from attending a lecture by a prominent scholar, disguises herself as a young man and sneaks inside anyway, much like a heroine from an Iranian film sneaking into a forbidden football match. “Maybe they’re scared if they teach us how the world works, we’ll figure out a way to take over,” she tells her friend in one scene, distraught that her spectacularly ordinary brother is shown preferential treatment by their father.

Also read: For All Mankind review: One small step for streaming, one giant leap for Apple TV+

Emily’s relationship with her parents is one of the few connective tissues in a story that is largely told in disjointed chunks. You sort of wish that Dickinson had the courage to confront the sadness at its subject’s core, or at the very least the society’s perception of her, but it plays more like the SparkNotes version of her life; not particularly incisive, but invaluable nonetheless.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar