Review: A Quiet Passion
4out of 5

Director: Terence Davies

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, and Catherine Bailey

In A Quiet Passion, we meet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) at her strict college where, within minutes, she has rebelled. Appalled by the expectations placed on her sex and declaring herself hopeful, but not dependent on, divine salvation, Dickinson establishes what becomes a recurring theme. Even from her teenage years, she has a clarity of perception unimpeded by either religious or social convention.

Dickinson, at this time, is still in the flowering of her youth and enjoys both the opera and and the company of others. In time, however, she retreats into her family home and into herself, plagued by physical illness and the confining aspects of her own nature. The constant throughout her life is the Dickinson family. Her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and brother Austin (Duncan Duff), form the principal relationships in Emily’s life, and become still more important as she withdraws from the outside world.

Silence, used to great effect by director and screenwriter Terence Davies, imbues Dickinson’s world with a feeling of restriction, much like the social world against which she rails with enthusiasm. Panning shots of the family home’s interior compound the sense of closeness, particularly during an evening scene in which the entire Dickinson family sits in the parlour, generally motionless and silent. Breaking the stillness at her mother’s request, Emily plays a hymn. This is not a world of hedonism. A Quiet Passion is Davies’ first entirely digital film, a medium he exploits with skill in creating parts of the set. Perhaps the only visual shortcoming is in the early scenes, particularly in the concert hall, where digital effects leave a sheen of unreality.

Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is remarkable, capturing the poet’s individualism and her vulnerability. The scenes of illness are portrayed very convincingly, and Nixon shows a depth of ability only hinted at in some of her previous work. Emily’s sister Vinnie, played with an often barely suppressed joy by Ehle, possesses a wit to match the more literary Dickinson. These are educated people who revel in the art of conversation. Davies is generous with the repartee, so much so that some of the early scenes begin to resemble comedy. It all works to good effect, except perhaps for Emily’s friend (Catherine Bailey), whose witticisms and style are contrived enough to make her seem out of place. Redemption comes in the form of her sharp observations about American culture and hypocrisy that remain true today.

This is an emotionally affecting film, from its depiction of the young, quietly rebellious Dickinson to the embittered woman she becomes. Her perceptive judgement and high expectations of both herself and others, admirable in her early years, eventually make her brittle. Dickinson is dismayed at her own discontent, plunging into self-reproach immediately after lashing out at those around her. While the woman we see yields to self-loathing, haunted by the poetic recognition and romantic love she does not have, voice-overs of her poetry remind us of the sublime talent within.

A Quiet Passion is an ambitious film, and a successful one. It well deserves a place alongside the Dickinson biographies as an aid to understanding both a time past and one of America’s greatest poets.

Review by Clinton Ducas