A new Terence Davies film starring Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion, examines poet Emily Dickinson‘s life (1830-1886) as a “troubled, reclusive genius” (Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times).
What was at the root of Dickinson’s isolation? Among the mental health conditions that have been speculated are social anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. No one really knows for certain, however.
Does A Quiet Passion represent her true story? Some say no, some say kinda, some say it may not matter so much. William Nicholson, Guardian: “Davies’s film is not biographically accurate, nor does it present a purely subjective vision of Emily. He has made his own…The dramatist controls the selection of material, and therefore the story he or she tells…In this case, where the subject is a poet, the test for me is: does the work send the viewer, the reader, back to the poems? If it does, then bring it all on.”
In the film Dickinson is first seen in 1848, says Chang, when she (played by a younger actress) is “being expelled from Mount Holyoke College, where her refusal to submit herself to God in the expected manner has earned her the label of ‘no-hoper’. The relative good humor with which her Protestant family greets this news is telling, as is a terrifically funny later scene in which Emily, her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) and her siblings spar with a morally upright aunt (a delightful Annette Badland).”
Nixon then takes the lead role. According to Ella Taylor, NPR, “…No one would call Nixon’s Emily Dickinson a happy camper, but this is a riot grrl for her time, taking charge of her destiny and, in her tortured, compulsively honest way, her soul.”
Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press, summarizes what ensues in A Quiet Passion:
…Jennifer Ehle is her sister Vinnie and Duncan Duff is her brother Austin. There is still vigor and energy in all, but life has tempered that a bit. Emily finds a lively companion in Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is even more modern than Emily. But Vryling manages to delight in the silly constrictions of their society where Emily is deeply conflicted and tormented by pressures of piety, decorum and what she feels is right.
And the world only seems to disappoint Emily as time goes on. Some of her poems are published, but not enough. She falls madly in love with a married pastor, but he does not return her affections. Her married brother falls for another woman. Her health begins to fail. And then there’s death, which looms everywhere.
About death, that notable Dickinsonian thread, A.A. Dowd, AVClub: “Death haunted Dickinson’s thoughts, and especially her work; she found beautiful ways to convey a lifelong anxiety, instilled as early as childhood, when the passing of a second cousin struck her with an incurable case of melancholy…What’s surprising about A Quiet Passion, given the writer-director’s own incurable melancholy, is how lively, how flat-out funny, it frequently is.”
And another theme worth mentioning, autonomy: “Without sinking into total pop psychology, A Quiet Passion recognizes a desire for independence as a driving motivation. This applies not just to her rejection of organized religion’s demands…but also to her decision never to marry—though Davies, who’s been open about his own lifelong rejection of romance, doesn’t deny the resulting sting of loneliness…”
The trailer, which contains excerpts of praise from critics, follows below:
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