The Dead Woman
If suddenly you do not exist,
if suddenly you no longer live,
I shall live on.
I do not dare,
I do not dare to write it,
if you die.
I shall live on.
For where a man has no voice,
there, my voice.
Where blacks are beaten,
I cannot be dead.
When my brothers go to prison
I shall go with them.
not my victory,
but the great victory comes,
even though I am mute I must speak;
I shall see it come even
though I am blind.
No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive,
because above all things
you wanted me indomitable,
and, my love, because you know that I am not only a man
but all mankind.
Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald D Walsh, from The Captain’s Verses (New Directions, 1972).
Some things you know before you know them, apprehending them in your bones. The gut doesn’t even come into it. You might be eighteen and studying for exams. Or recently married and out for a date night to watch Truly Madly Deeply. Which a friend has insisted is hilarious but turns out to be about grief and death. And a rat infestation.
Encountering Pablo Neruda’s ‘The Dead Woman’ was just such an experience for me.
The experience of watching Nina (Juliet Stevenson) switching from desolation to ebullience in the famous ‘snot scene’ with her therapist was not really like watching acting at all. For years I would replay it on a thinning VHS tape, marvelling each time at Minghella’s ability to conjure the same from practically everyone in the cast, right down to George the rat catcher, reminiscing from nowhere about his dead wife, beautifully played by the late David Ryall.
Nevertheless, I was resolute in my belief that the film belonged to Stevenson. From the aforementioned snot, to the scene in which Nina’s sister asks to borrow her deceased partner Jamie’s cello for her son, to the scene in which she hops along the Embankment splurging her life story to new boyfriend Mark, I felt certain that the role of Jamie, played by Alan Rickman, had been merely to allow Stevenson to flourish.
And then he died. And like a million others I dusted off my DVD and began to reassess a few things.
There is his own brilliant switch, in his longest speech of the film, watching Nina collecting the washing by her back door, from wry to wistful and back via wonderment, laying the blame for the world’s lack of love at the feet of the government: ‘I hate the bastards’. The way he moves from intimacy to irritation just by raising one eyebrow, when Nina names a cloud, complete with beard, after his mother. The slightly exasperated tone in which he drawls ‘I knew you shaved your legs’ after surprising Nina in the bath.
But in the clip above he is at his tender best, reciting Neruda’s poem in a ‘terrible’ Spanish accent that is at once comic and intimate. Which is what Minghella himself said was the film’s main subject, not ghosts and not death: ‘That feeling you have when you’ve talked all night, you’re eating cornflakes for lunch and you haven’t even kissed yet.’
For the film to work we need to believe in Nina’s grief. In the scene above, just as importantly, we need to believe in Jamie’s compassion, his capacity to love her enough to let her go. His smile as Nina embraces him mirrors that at the film’s close, as Nina leaves the flat to meet her new lover, his ghost-friends closing round him to offer him hand slaps of salute. I find it reassuring that Minghella entrusted the film’s most intimate moment, which is about intimacy, to a poem.