“A Quiet Passion,” the poetic biopic of Emily Dickinson is as unsung as its protagonist. Her quiet, unassuming life was both a solace and a source of angst for her whose soul expanded far beyond the social conventions of New England in the late 19th century.
The film is directed and written by Terrance Davies and stars Cynthia Nixon as the isolated poet. With profound spiritual depth, the film reviews the life of this unrecognized poet from her childhood to the reclusive years before her death. With enormous wit, the film shows Emily expressing her mind with regard to a woman’s abilities to intellectualize, communicate and express herself artistically in a time that kept women in confined stereotypes. Fewer than a dozen of her more than 1800 poems were published during her lifetime and were significantly altered and published anonymously.
Nixon poignantly captures the inner turmoil of this quietly passionate artist. Her facial expressions and quick wit are at once humorous and tragic.
Taking its time, the film wisps through her life as we listen to Emily’s thoughts pouring forth by means of her transcendent poetry read as voice over throughout the film. In her years of isolation she writes, “Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.” It is truly a graceful visual of one of America’s most outstanding poets, albeit only acknowledged after her death in 1886.
Her life was spent surrounded by her family. Her strict but somewhat unconventional father (Keith Carradine) is her foundation as he understands her broad mind and keen intellect. Her mother (Joanna Bacon), stricken with severe clinical depression and other ailments, remains present but quiet. Emily is especially close to her siblings. Her older brother Austin (Duncan Duff) eventually marries and has children. Her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) remains unmarried and her sole companion throughout her life. Their love for each other is touching and sisterly, as expressed when Emily lashes out angrily about her brother’s infidelity, she says to Lavinia, “How can you go on loving me?” Lavinia responds, “You are so easy to love.” This familial interaction is at once unpretentious yet reflective. Their love surpasses each other’s faults and idiosyncrasies.
The long, intense film shots on people’s faces and the tangible atmosphere of the Dickinson home with a full 360-degree panoramic of the living room carries the viewer into a bygone era. The story moves gently as does Emily’s poetry. It takes the viewer into her soul, a bird that is caged not only by societal restrictions but also by her own angst for aesthetical freedom. She yearns for existential knowledge and obsesses over death while also drawing out the beauty that surrounds her. As all artists struggle with life’s contradictions, Emily also holds firmly to her faith in God as a passion that keeps her from despair.
“A Quiet Passion” is an experience of poetry and an insight into the soul of a prolific yet unrecognized artist in her day. The film, like her poetry, at once grounds in the natural while transcending it to enter the realm of the supernatural all the while longing for spiritual freedom.