Film: Keen Poet

‘A Quiet Passion’ examines the life of Emily Dickinson

The film ‘A Quiet Passion,’ about the life of Emily Dickinson, is like a version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ in which a Beatrice never finds her Benedick.

By Richard von Busack

The title A Quiet Passion is kind of lethal. Quiet is a risky word to put in a film title. The film’s pace is very deliberate—the first impression is of a game that went into extra innings. There’s a line here that any critic could take to heart: “All the best compliments are dubious.”

Praising the deliberateness of this movie’s pace may make it sound boring. When it’s over, it’s clear that the eminent director Terence Davies, a master of moody, immersive cinema, needed time to contrast the body and soul of his subject.

Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) focuses on Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), a lady of solitude and physical sufferings, tortured to an early grave at 55 by Bright’s disease. She was the middle daughter of a family in Amherst, Massachusetts. The father (Keith Carradine) was a stern patriarch of a lawyer, but he had the intelligence to let his daughter live her unmarried life, letting her rise at 3am to get some writing time in before sunrise.

This anchoress saint of poetry only published a few poems in her lifetime, and hand-stitched her verse into little chapbooks. The apparent lightness of the lines disguise its tensile strength; her telegraphic bursts of words, connected by dashes, are as light as a feather and as dense as a $6 loaf of bread. What was seen of her poetry was dismissed; one editor called it “Childish, like nursery rhymes.”

Dickinson’s struggle against lifelong underestimation had its light side. Sometimes wrenchingly sad, A Quiet Passion is by far Davies’ funniest film. The Sex and the City veteran Nixon captures the yeast as well as the starch of Dickinson. This vision of the poet as a keen epigrammatical woman is beguiling.


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