A Quiet Passion

A film of the life of poet Emily Dickinson

A Quiet Passion by Terence Davies is an absolute drop-dead masterwork. It displays an urgent outpouring of pent-up creative energy from a director well advanced in his career but tapping into ideas, impulses, and talents that somehow have been kept under wraps throughout his decades of artistic activity.

Poster for the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet PassionWhat’s surprising, even astonishing, about A Quiet Passion is that, first of all, it’s funny. In depicting Dickinson’s life, fixed mainly at the family home in Amherst, Davies (who both directed the film and wrote the script) turns the story into a lacerating comical satire on New England’s narrow mores – until the movie turns into an ink-black physical and moral and spiritual tragedy of thwarted love, thwarted renown, and illness and death confronted brutally, cushioned by no religious convictions.

The movie starts with the teenaged Emily (Emma Bell) repudiating, with a calm and steadfast insolence, the pieties of her Christian boarding school. Her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), is a moderate freethinker who accepts and even cherishes Emily’s independent mind. He welcomes her back home from school, lightly disdaining the reproaches of stiff-necked relatives, even as young Emily radically outpaces his liberal purview. When his strong-minded daughter wants to stay up at night to write poetry, he gives her leave to do so, and thus begins the life of the artist.

Within the limited rounds of Emily’s moderately reclusive habits enters a new friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a brashly outspoken proto-feminist who proclaims her sexual freedom along with the intellectual kind. Vryling’s marriage and the friends’ resulting separation is a quiet trauma, one comforted only modestly by the sympathy of Emily’s sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff). But when Emily falls in love with the married Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), who enjoys the intellectual exchange but offers no romantic response, she becomes increasingly bitter.

The poet’s frustrations rise as the sole outlet for her art – anonymous publication in her local newspaper – dries up as well, through the cruel and vengeful narrow-mindedness of its editor. She confronts her brother’s romantic hypocrisy and her sister’s staunch amiability, and then she gets sick.

Davies films his literary script with a directorial daring that’s both precise and free, blending delicately composed close-ups and group portraits with audaciously confrontational and uninhibited visual imagination, involving three-hundred-and-sixty-degree pans and haunting special effects. He also makes exemplary use of Dickinson’s poetry, recited by Nixon and playing like a sort of music that meshes with the actual sound track.

Great acting usually coincides with great direction, and, while the entire cast moves and speaks with a sense of inner purpose, Nixon’s performance is special. (If she’s not nominated for an Oscar, I’ll eat the pixels.) Her incarnation of Dickinson seems poised with, yes, a quiet passion that’s all the more impassioned for its unplanned quietness. Nixon’s Dickinson would like, rather, to make a little noise, and when she does so it’s with a disagreeable, disruptive, hostile bitterness that exemplifies Davies’s view of the poet’s unhappy anonymity.

Davies does more than film Dickinson’s life; he creates a world that is, above all, her inner world, confined to the increasingly narrow circles of her activity. 

Norman Mailer once said that the one character that novelists can’t successfully create is that of a novelist better than themselves. Similarly, no filmmaker can create a convincing portrait of an artist without being an artist of comparable imagination. Davies has been, for thirty years, among the world’s best filmmakers, certainly not as concealed or unheralded in his time as Dickinson was in hers, but not nearly receiving the acclaim or the support that he has deserved. A Quiet Passion will take its place as one of his finest creations, and as one of the great movies of the time.

– Richard Brody, The New Yorker

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