Film Review: A Quiet Passion, A Delicate Capture of Emily Dickinson’s Angst-Ridden World

Photograph courtesy of Music Box Films

One of the more delicate works you’re likely to see about such a strong personality, writer-director Terence Davies’ (The Deep Blue Sea, The Long Day Closes, Distant Voices, Still Lives) moving A Quiet Passion captures the angst-ridden world of Emily Dickinson, the poet and reasoned thinker, whose work never received proper recognition during her lifetime. Anchored by an exceptional performance by Cynthia Nixon (as Dickinson in her adult years), the movie takes a unique perspective to the poet’s life by painting her as a woman who seems desperate for outside human contact but actively rejects it throughout her life.

The film opens with Dickinson as a teenager (played by Emma Bell), effectively being ejected from religious schooling because she is unconvinced of God’s existence, although to call her an atheist doesn’t quite fit her either. Upon returning home among her parents—the stoic Edward (Keith Carradine) and sickly mother (Joanna Bacon)—Emily becomes something of a recluse, refusing gentlemen interested in paying her a social call and retreating into the world of words, which both comfort her and underscore her fears and pain. She is kept company by her far more outgoing sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and later her constant companion Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey, played a fictionalized version of a real person who Emily barely knew in real life). And it’s within this relationship that Emily found the courage to defy the world, even if the world (especially publishers) treated her writing poorly since she was a woman.

A Quiet Passion doesn’t follow conventional narrative wisdom, instead opting to portray very specific moments and people in Dickinson’s life that helped define her. Her mother’s illness and eventual death; her brother Austin’s (Duncan Duff) affair with a married woman; and her wavering feelings about the church (versus her powerful feelings about spirituality outside of a house of worship). Working with director of photography Florian Hoffmeister, Davies’ shot compositions are extraordinary; the framing is a work of art that deliberately opens up Dickinson’s writing and life in ways that don’t quite illustrate her poems but certainly provide them with the necessary visual backdrop.

Photograph courtesy of Music Box Films

While paying close attention to Dickinson’s poetry, he’s equally interested in the dynamic and interactions within the family, both in terms of their mannerisms and their closeness. Carradine is quite good as the patriarch, surrounded by mostly women and knowing full well the tide is turning in America as far as gender roles. We’re also treated to the occasional poetry reading (courtesy of a Nixon voiceover), and she tends to read Dickinson’s works with a blend of sentimental and amusement. It’s the perfect mixture for this wonderfully unexpected film that isn’t nearly as pent up and stiff as many period costume dramas. Dickinson’s writing wasn’t like that, nor should a film about her be. A Quiet Passion is a lovely exercise in tone, visual perfection and stellar performances.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Following the 7pm Saturday, May 20 screening, poet Christina Pugh of the Poetry Foundation will lead a post-film discussion.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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