Movie Review: A Quiet Passion
The lonely, uncompromising life of poet Emily Dickinson comes to life in a Terence Davies film that evokes the solitude and bravery of a 19th Century woman
A Quiet Passion
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Directed by: Terence Davies
Running time: 125 minutes
By Jay Stone
(May 28, 2017) The American poet Emily Dickinson (1820-1886) led a sad, reclusive, creative and celibate life. She was a prolific artist whose work was mostly unpublished in her lifetime — just 11 out of 1,800 poems made it to print — and matters of death and posterity occupied her. “The Carriage held but just Ourselves — / And Immortality” she wrote in her most famous poem, Because I could not stop for Death. And in the end, she found a kind of immortality.
A Quiet Passion, a movie about her life, is directed by Terence Davies, the English director (Distant Voices, Still Lives) who appears to be leading a similarly sad, creative and celibate life. Davies will tell interviewers of his years without a sexual partner. “If I could be not gay I would change it tomorrow like that,” he once said in an interview, snapping his fingers. “It’s ruined my life. It’s made me very unhappy. I’m very lonely. I’m just not part of the scene. I just find it predatory and shallow and I can’t bear all that body fascism. I just can’t.”
His tone is reminiscent of the Dickinson of the film, a woman who similarly does not belong in her world. “I wish I could feel as others do but it is not possible,” she says in one of several voice-overs that layer Davies’ rich, unhurried portrait of a woman who does not fit with her time. There’s a meeting of souls between filmmaker and subject that seems made in the particular paradise that they share. (“Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.”)
There’s a meeting of souls between filmmaker and subject that seems made in the particular paradise that they share.
It is, first of all, a beautifully made film: Davies is a master of lighting, and A Quiet Passion is bathed in a diffuse shading that slows the eye but never the film’s heartbeat. As portrayed by Cynthia Nixon, whose bona fides in the Sex and the City franchise seem like a cruel irony here, she is a headstrong young woman in a world of religious fundamentalism — Puritan Massachusetts in the 19th Century — who nonetheless finds the wherewithal to stand up to the pieties of the day.
It’s a subtle kind of individualism, indulged by her father Edward (Keith Carradine) who is permissive toward his freethinking children — Emily has a sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and a brother Winston (Duncan Duff) — until the point where they break the conventions of worship too publicly. He allows Emily the freedom to write her poetry, even late at night by lamplight. He even grants her permission to send it off to a nearby newspaper, where it is published after some changes to her idiosyncratic punctuation (Dickinson was fond of dashes and semi-colons).
Her brother marries, her parents slowly become incapacitated, and Emily gradually withdraws from the world, spending her final years rarely leaving her room. There she writes her verse — work that few see — and suffers from a debilitating kidney disease that makes her shake uncontrollably. Her romantic life is confined to a crush on a married minister whose departure from New England inspired some of her most heartbreaking rhymes.
Nonetheless, Dickinson is not the prototypical suffering poet. Nixon finds all the bravery, but also the dark and disagreeable notes of the character, and she imbues Emily with a firmness that is both laudable and tragic. She excoriates well-meaning visitors, then cries to Vinnie, a paragon of loving support, about what she has become. She is a passionate woman trapped in a cold and structured society; a brilliant poet crying out to a world that does not read her.
…Dickinson is not the prototypical suffering poet. Nixon finds all the bravery, but also the dark and disagreeable notes of the character, and she imbues Emily with a firmness that is both laudable and tragic.
Davies builds this world with understated care: not just the lighting, but his slow-moving camera that creeps across confining rooms; the meticulous set design that evokes the embroidered repression of the age; the softly chosen music. It’s somber, but the mood is frequently shocked out of any notions of slumber when, for instance, the Dickinson children tease a tiresome aunt with a roundelay of wit, or when Emily’s young friend Buffam (Catherine Baker) strolls amusingly through the manicured grounds, dropping small epigrams here and there like a careless but very literary gardener. Emily is delighted.
At times like these, Dickinson comes off the screen — and off the page — as a full-bodied person, with all her faults and all her genius. Much like Davies himself, she is making art to save her life.
THE EX-PRESS.CA, May 28, 2017
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