Emily Dickinson. She's one of the recognized great poets in American literature, and in addition to being a staple of literature courses, she remains a figure with the power to touch people on a personal level through her own highly personal and individual poems. When I lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, I once visited her grave: there's nothing to make it stand out among the other 19th century markers and monuments, except for one thing. Arranged around the marker were many little offerings, clearly left by visitors, ranging from a handful of flowers to scraps of poetry or a pen. So in death the reclusive Emily has become somewhat of a muse, somewhat of a celebrity (insofar as 19th century poets can be celebrities, in our time). But what was she really like, this brilliant and eccentric woman who lived her whole life in one small Massachusetts town?
That's what Julie Harris sets out to show us in The Belle of Amherst. It's a curious performance, because it's not a film or documentary at all. Rather, it's Harris' one-woman play, in which she takes on the role of Emily and, in an extended series of monologues, shares her thoughts and feelings with the audience.
The 90-minute program, which is broken into two 45-minute acts, ranges far and wide over the life and experiences of Dickinson. We hear her reminisce about her childhood, talk about her relationships with other people, and discuss her thoughts on life in general. While the monologues are presented as Dickinson speaking directly to an imaginary visitor (in other words, the audience), the actual speeches incorporate elements from many written sources, such as Dickinson's poetry, her diaries, and her letters. In that way, we can be reasonably sure that this is a portrayal of Dickinson based on documentary evidence, not an invention.
The program on DVD is simply a filmed performance: we see the audience on the initial establishing shot, and we hear them laugh or applaud throughout the program. The camera isn't entirely static; for the most part it focuses on Harris and the set as a whole, but there are occasional close-ups. Still, this is very clearly a play rather than a film, so anything resembling cinematography is really an afterthought.
The Belle of Amherst is probably best suited to viewing by people who are very familiar with Dickinson and very interested in her life, and who will thus appreciate seeing the historical figure brought to life by Harris. As someone who enjoys 19th century literature but who isn't a particular fan of Dickinson's poetry, I found the program watchable but not outstanding. It's certainly the kind of program that would be well suited to showing to a literature class, though, at a variety of levels.
We can't expect too much from a DVD of a play that was filmed in 1976; as long as you keep that in mind, The Belle of Amherst is watchable. (In a pleasant display of honest packaging, the DVD cover notes the shortcomings of a transfer from the only source, which was "primitive analog video.") The image, which is presented in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, is very soft and blurry, and has a reddish tint overall, as well as some color fluctuations toward the end of the program.
The soundtrack is a very basic presentation that gets the job done adequately for the most part. The sound is distinctly flat and center-focused, as we might expect from a low-budget taping of a live performance. Overall, it holds up adequately except when Harris starts raising her voice in the more emotional moments of the performance; at this point it sounds rather harsh and not particularly pleasant. Part of the problem is in the soundtrack, and part in Harris' performance: since she was performing for a large live audience, with little or no amplification, she projects her voice in a way that probably sounded fine in person but doesn't sound as good on a recording.
There are no special features on the DVD. The program does have chapter stops, with usefully descriptive labels.
The Belle of Amherst is a program that will appeal to a very small viewing audience. This one-woman performance of Dickinson should interest teachers who are looking for good-quality biographical material to play for their students, as well as viewers who are particular fans of Dickinson's life and works. I'll suggest it as a rental.