Film Review: A Quiet Passion

Rich in period detail, this exquisite biopic of the acclaimed reclusive and rebellious mid-19th-century Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson powerfully resonates for the truth and beauty-starved American populace of today.
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With A Quiet Passion, British filmmaker Terence Davies (House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea) delivers a mesmerizing portrait of the refreshingly sensible and sensitive Emily Dickinson, the rebellious, self-aware outlier of the 19th century whose writing established her as one of the world’s greatest poets.

Dickinson (Emma Bell as the young Emily; Cynthia Nixon, who’s never been better, as the older poet) is first seen as a defiant first-year student (and final year, as it turns out) at the strict and demanding Mt. Holyoke Lady’s Seminary, where Puritanism runs as rampant as its students don’t. Among others, Emily is called upon by Mt. Holyoke hierarchy to declare adherence to standard religious dogma regarding God and sin.

But she stands firm before the seminary leaders and remains true to her personal beliefs. She is and will remain a thinking-woman’s agnostic and, as a staunch independent and paragon of tasteful if eccentric female rebellion, she rejects mindless conformity.

No surprise that Emily is asked to leave the school (currents of puritanical rectitude and conformity lingered at least through the 1960s at this “seven sisters” college) and, bearing no shame (she smilingly describes her dilemma as “suffering from a severe case of evangelism”), she returns to her nearby Amherst home in western Massachusetts. There, she lives (and will continue to live throughout her lifetime) with her prosperous, proper and respected family, all of whom love and support her (in their way). Such forbearance becomes more challenging as Emily more and more restricts her confinement to the lovely house and ongoing need to write poetry.

Early on, her strict but tolerant lawyer-father (a perfectly cast Keith Carradine) accedes to her wish to write her poetry in very late-night/early-morning stretches. And the bright and lively Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle, also excellent) gives signs that she will be the older, supportive companion sister she becomes and Emily deserves. Brother Austin (Duncan Duff) is supportive in his way, but with a bit of the “dude” in him will fight his father to join the Civil War and later, after receiving a law degree from Harvard, marry and, much to Emily’s fury, cheat on his wife Susan (Jodhi May). Also residing in the household is Emily’s mostly bedridden, sickly mother (Joanna Bacon), a largely silent presence. Onboard briefly is the fussy and imperious Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland), who with her annoying rectitude and insistence on religious orthodoxy, reinforces Emily as a breath of fresh air and clarity in the film’s puritanical time and milieu. Snaps Emily gently to Auntie: “Cherish your ignorance; you’ll never know when you’ll need it.”

As Emily continues to write prolifically, she allows a few others into her small physical world, though it’s her profound spiritual world and inspirational reverence for nature, as the many voiceovers of her poetry indicate, that dominate. Most colorful and sharing of her friends is the showy, outspoken Miss Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a witty critic of human nature who, rebellious in her unfettered way, would in today’s world be called a “character.” When Buffam goes the way of marriage, a little sparkle leaves Emily’s life and even the film’s.

Much follows, but the impact is more that of mood than events as Emily grows more reclusive (precipitated by her father’s death) and fate plays its hand. How her poetry catches fire to gain her recognition remains for a documentary, as does any deeper speculation regarding her alleged lesbianism.

Meanwhile, Terence Davies has achieved his own greatness with his writing and direction here. Yes, his dialogue for an array of characters is often heavily epigrammatic but never jarring, and such expression brings much humor, wit and truisms delicious to ponder.

Nixon, so resembling Dickinson in looks and rendering her persona so convincingly and poetry so meaningfully, is on a path to awards recognition. Her performance triumphs as she personifies the wit, deeply honest thinking and pathos of the poet whose genius only came to be recognized after her death and was further immortalized in the acclaimed 1976 play Belle of Amherst that won Julie Harris a Tony Award.

Production design, costumes, camerawork, even near-magical visual transitions are also key to bringing alive Dickinson’s mindset, poetry and world. The film’s Belgian interiors, captured often via soft lights illuminating evocative design detail and assured pans thanks to Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography, are splendid and seal viewers in that pleasantly claustrophobic 19th-century time and place. And the few Amherst, Mass. exteriors support the film’s authentic setting.

A Quiet Passion should sate the most demanding of cinephile and literary appetites, as the passion within may be quiet but, like Dickinson’s poetry, is alive, accessible and urgent.

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