I tend to avoid Victorian era period pieces- so I was not particularly enthused about seeing A Quiet Passion, a new film about the life of poet Emily Dickinson. Imagine my surprise then, when I found out that Dickinson was not actually English, but hailed from Massachusetts! I knew I should have paid more attention during 10th grade English.
Perhaps such low expectations (accompanied by a lack of knowledge) helped me to appreciate this true marvel of a film. It’s a major accomplishment from director Terence Davies, who, alongside Mike Leigh, is often regarded as the greatest living British filmmaker. This was my first of his films, and it certainly won’t be the last.
For his first venture stateside, Davies cast Cynthia Nixon (of Miranda in Sex And The City fame) as Dickinson. Nixon disappears into the role and does an extraordinary job that I fear will be forgotten come major awards time. We first meet her as a young woman (played by Emma Bell), confidently speaking her mind in response to a threatening school teacher. Even for a woman of financial privilege, I can’t begin to comprehend the limitations of life for a woman back then. That Dickinson (who lived from 1830 to 1886) was so fearlessly independent, outspoken and free thinking is a true miracle, which the film illuminates in every scene.
For a film called A Quiet Passion, it’s a decidedly unquiet experience. Packed wall to wall with thought provoking dialogue, it’s an absolute feast for wordsmiths (this is certainly the first time I have seen the word “recalcitrant” used outside of standardized testing). By the time a wordless dream logic sequence arrives somewhere in the middle section, it comes as a relief. My girlfriend described the film as an “assault”- but an extremely pleasant one at that, and one that despite its confidence still doesn’t seem interested in drawing much attention to itself. Much like Dickinson.
A Quiet Passion makes incredible use of a largely single location premise- this is helped of course by the fact that Dickinson never married, had children, or moved out of the house she grew up in, with her siblings and parents. Her home turns into the perfect metaphor for a woman who requires isolation to live her life- which she fears keeps her from truly living it. Anyone who writes for a living can relate- you’re stuck to a chair, a desk, so that you can engage in your craft; and stepping foot out in the world may come with the anxiety of losing the edge that affords you your gift.
The film seems out to particularly grapple with that central question, of whether you have to choose between being an observer of life or a participant in it. Throughout the film, she’s surrounded by other women who have married, had children, or otherwise settled down; and in each encounter, she can hardly contain her sharp tongue and coarse judgment. She has dug in to defend her life path, and it seems she has been able to do so in part because of a loving and supportive family (standout performances by Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, and a revelatory turn from Keith Carradine as her father Edward).
Yet for Dickinson, observation was participation. Able to peel back layers of society that others would not see, this gift almost certainly contributed to her early feminist perspectives. The film even suggests a queer part of her life, as she becomes awfully close to a friend she hates to see getting married, and even shares an intimate moment of recognition with her sister in law, who is for some unexplained reason, terrified of sex with a man.
As a devout fan of the Bronte sisters, Dickinson saw the world through what was then a controversial lens. There’s a fascinating idea in the film that the power of suggestion through art can open the mind up to a sort of madness- had Dickinson never read Bronte, who is to say whether she would have ended up choosing marriage and quiet melancholy, as her mother did. In that sense, A Quiet Passion functions as far more than a biopic. For Dickinson, the art she consumed ended up consuming her- for someone who ended up so isolated, that’s profoundly relateable.
A Quiet Passion opens in Philly theaters today.