This is a portrait of the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson.
It is a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who made an impression in the past with his classic Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 as well as The Long Day Closes in 1992. Davies also made a screen version of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and a very telling remake of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Davies might be called a fastidious director, great attention to detail, a great sensitivity to human feelings, and setting them within a historic and cultural context. A Quiet Passion is set between the 1840s and the 1880s and Davies re-creates the period, its look, its feel, costumes and decor, sensibilities meticulously. The period covers the lives of very proper Bostonians with a Protestant and evangelical religious outlook, the challenge of the Civil War, the unsettled aftermath. It also covers the media of the period, the newspapers and magazines, especially for outlets for the publication of poetry.
The film opens with Emily asserting herself at the religious school for young ladies, some in the group choosing to be women of faith and Christianity, others choosing to be women of faith but not committed to Christianity, with Edith standing in the middle, her own woman, defying the threats of hell from the prim women in charge. She feels it necessary that her family come to rescue her, her patrician father and her younger sister and brother. She returns to their quiet, comfortable and settled life in Boston. She is skilled in writing poetry but it is not the done thing for young women to be published – especially when they go to a concert and her father disapproves exceedingly of a woman singing in public. Despite the objections of her aunt, the father does make contact with an editor and a problem is published.
Externally, nothing very much happens in Emily Dickinson’s life, though there is an intensity in her inner life. She is played, very effectively, as a traditional spinster by Cynthia Nixon (a long way away from Sex and the City). Her sister is played by Jennifer Ehle, one of those smiling, kind and gentle performances at which Jennifer Ehle is expert. The patriarchal father is played by Keith Carradine.
Edith and her sister stay at home, with some views on slavery and the Civil War, religious in outlook but Edith, especially, refusing her father’s invitation to actually go to church. Their mother is loving but is sickly and dies.
Edith is self-contained, has no desire to marry, is happy and secure in her home life, with some women friends who pass in and out of her life. There is quite a moral crisis when she finds that her brother is unfaithful to his wife with whom Edith is friendly, sharing books and other matters of taste. She emerges as quite intolerant, unforgiving, despite efforts by her sister and brother to mollify her outlook – and she does, at times, admit that she can be far too harsh.
As she grows older, she becomes unwell – and the scenes of her illness and treatment are quite forthright.
On paper, it might be said that the life of Emily Dickinson is not a subject for a feature film. Rather, it might have been effective as a piece of theatre. As it is, it is a film of words with many of the Emily Dickinson’s problems being recited by Cynthia Nixon – although, poems which require more than one reading to grasp their meaning and tone, something not possible with the film. It is a film of tableaux. To that extent, A Quiet Passion is quite theatrical but, with Davies’ sensitivity and sensibility, it does offer an audience an opportunity to get to know and appreciate Emily Dickinson.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting