A Quiet Passion: A New Film Exposes the Lonely Life of Emily Dickinson

The new film A Quiet Passion, written and directed by Terence Davies, tells the life story of lauded 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. While most of us are aware of Dickinson’s poetry today, her work went unrecognized while she was alive. Only a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime, with the bulk of her voluminous work discovered posthumously. Davies gives new meaning to the term suffering for one’s art, as he presents Dickinson’s life of isolation and bitterness on screen.

Cynthia Nixon seems cosmically connected to Dickinson, channeling the writer through her acting. Nixon’s nuanced and powerful performance nearly saves the film, but it’s uneven storytelling and pacing leave the audience grasping for some levity during the second half of the movie.
The story begins by depicting Dickinson as a vibrant, young woman with a quick wit and strong intellect. She is full of spirit, and holds a contempt for the expectations placed upon her (and all women) by “acceptable” society. The poet sees herself as unattractive and unworthy of romantic attraction, though she briefly attempts a flirtation with a married preacher whose sermons ignite her passion. But a woman’s place in Dickinson’s world is to be decorous, a role our protagonist feels unable to fulfill, both due to her dowdy looks, but more so due to her self-worth and pride. Despite her insecurities regarding her physical appearance, Dickinson was a strong-willed feminist who challenged gender norms of the period. The idea that her life’s goal should be to marry and decorate the arm of a man of lesser intellect and ability quite literally disgusted her.

But while the film is successful in exposing Dickinson’s lifelong struggles with loneliness, self-doubt, isolation and physical pain, it is difficult to watch. The film follows Dickinson down into the depths of her despair. This is NOT the feel-good movie of the summer. What starts as a period film/biopic with a healthy dose of humorous banter between characters, devolves into a too realistic exploration of the drudgery of disappointment and bitterness Dickinson lived with alone in her room, cut off from most of the outside world.

Jennifer Ehle shines as Vinnie (Lavinia) Dickinson, Emily’s sister and lifelong support-system and confidant. And Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon are convincing in their roles as Emily’s parents. But other supporting performances are of a lesser quality. Some seem to be acting for the stage rather than film, with performances that are a bit over-the-top for such a quiet film.

Davies does a nice job of weaving Dickinson’s poems into the story, and connecting her work with her life experiences. But at times, the film’s dialogue seems to revert to clever one-liners thrown back and forth between characters. Rather than flowing naturally, the lines seem too rehearsed and too prepared. Perhaps this is the intention, but the technique falls flat. While the story is fascinating, the film itself is slow moving and plodding. And while I greatly appreciate serious films, this tale seems to be weighted down with self-importance and darkness, especially during the second half of the film. It’s a shame, because it’s during the second half that we really get to make emotional connections with some of the characters, including Emily.
Save this film for a rainy day.

A Quiet Passion: 6/10

Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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