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Depictions of 19th century life are often ones that sound, to the modern ear, like poetic verse, words carefully bandied about in large sitting rooms of ornate decorations populated with uptight types in regal dress with only the most ponderous of things to say. Such is the case with A Quiet Passion, a film that embraces its title with aplomb, with plenty of ‘sitting room’ moments featuring characters with stiff backs and razor-sharp verbal exchanges spoken with steely politeness, and while the purposefully, often laggard pace, might feel almost glacial for modern audiences, there are treasures within about this acclaimed American poet that make the effort a rewarding choice.
It begins with a rescue of sorts as a teen Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) is taken away from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by her family, where her decidedly unconventional Christian views are in conflict with the school’s teachings. She returns to her Amherst home, where she remained quiet literally for the rest of her life (played as an adult for most of the film by Cynthia Nixon), and where the film nearly entirely revolves, writing poetry and tending to the relationships with her family, including her stern but pliable father Edward (Keith Carradine), her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), her ailing, bed-ridden mother Emily (Joanna Bacon), and fiery friend Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey).
Written and directed by Terence Davies, A Quiet Passion most often feels like a staged play on expensive authentic sets. Characters speak with such great weight and design, nary a single syllable is uttered without earnest intent. These are people bound by profound proper social etiquette and even disagreements hold steadfast to a kind of established rules of engagement. It can be fun to watch as they duel and discuss and debate in such haughty terms, at least by our own standards. What Davies does best is construct a palpable constrictive existence about Dickinson’s life and we are quick to sympathize with her choices as she shrinks into the safety and comfort of her home and more so, her bedroom to write. This was a time in our history when she asks permission to put pen to paper in her own father’s house, when women where not considered able to create works of literature or prose and when her few published poems were circulated, were edited to fit accepted norms. In reflective terms, it’s easy to feel rage for her plight, as it were.
Naturally, despite the large cast, this is a one-woman show is many respects, with Nixon impressive as the tragic artist, generating great depth out of a decidedly immobile part. Delivering dialogue of this nature takes a certain flare in selling it right, and of the ensemble, Nixon does it best, convincing and inspired. Carradine is also effective as the towering father figure often standing aside in his scenes, his presence strongly-felt. The film puts him and his daughter in numerous verbal battles, mostly on her derision for organized religion, especially Catholicism. These, and other stirring moments populating the first two-thirds of the movie, giving it more energy than the last, which sees the failing Dickinson resigned to reclusive retreat in her room.
Davis is a good storyteller though, and treats the subject and the characters with great dignity, even in a few moments that stumble and feel a little forced. A sensational shift from Dickinson’s youth to adulthood is a stunner as a photographic portrait session ages her family as the camera gently draws near. It’s a beautiful sequence. Still, as Dickinson’s youth fades, so too does a bit of the film’s edge as it reaches its inevitable end, but not enough to mar the experience as a whole. For fans of the poet and lovers of period costuming and setting, there is much about A Quiet Passion that deserves a look.
Movie description: A Quiet Passion is a 2017 biographical drama about Emily Dickinson from her early life as schoolgirl to her last days in isolation.
Director(s): Terence Davies
Actor(s): Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff
Genre: Bio, Drama