Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Eric Loren, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Benjamin Wainwright, Annette Badland, Miles Richardson.
Director: Terence Davies
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material.)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Date: April 14, 2017
Hurricane Films, Potemkino, WeatherVane Productions, and Music Box Films.
Written by: Terence Davies.
Lyrical and poetic in tone and atmosphere, A Quiet Passion is a densely spoken, mannered and controlled look at the life of American poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon). Written and directed by the introspective filmmaker Terence Davies, his latest film provides us with one of the only cinematic explorations of the iconic writer’s life,
And what an intriguing life she lived. We begin with an idealistic Emily (Emma Bell), whip-smart and gaining rebellious confidence as she charts her course in the late-1840’s at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. With her red hair clamped down ever so tight, she speaks with a wit and inquisitiveness that challenges the norms she faces in how women present themselves and conduct themselves in public. Though she comes from a progressive upbringing, her pushbacks against roles and expectations leave some exasperated and frustrated, including her lawyer father, Edward (Keith Carradine).
Davies shifts in tone, with the film resembling a stage-like cadence as Emily interacts with friends, her younger sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), and crotchety locals and elder family members. As Nixon steps in for the adult incarnation of the character, we see a woman peaceful at home, writing in private, dismissing overtures and potential suitors and focused on family.
In time, Dickinson would become a recluse, and though she is often regarded as one of the most important writers of her era, only a scant portion of her work was ever shared publicly while alive. A great line underscores her legacy when, upon learning a friend has just returned from Boston, she observes that people don’t realize how much they enjoyed the city until they are home.
Throughout the film, Dickinson is a keen observer and Davies’ empowers cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister to quietly follow the same watchfulness. As Nixon slowly commands the screen, her Dickinson continues to veer towards defiance and eschews the religious wranglings of those around her. She is a strong, independent woman in an age and a time when subservience and service were woven into the expectations. The film crackles with a sarcasm and a lingering wit in the first half, playful and youthful.
Nixon steers the story more towards tragedy, as she grows increasingly satisfied to stay home, inside, and seldom ventures outdoors. Additionally, she becomes wracked with illness, which begins with a swelling of hands and foot, then turns into debilitating abdominal pain, but later induces seizures and convulsions. Diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, she turns introspective in her life and her writing, prone to attacks from her condition at random, infrequent times.
A Quiet Passion attempts to uncover the woman behind the prose and Davies scores a radiant performance from Nixon, who captures a wit slowly suppressed by illness. Ehle is terrific as Lavinia, the two actresses building a chemistry that allows us to get hooked into the connections and curiosities surrounding Emily and her family. But what weighs things down is that the film feels like two films stitched together by great acting. The film’s second half is necessarily more melancholy as Emily grows weaker, but feels a little discordant from the rest of the picture. With a character growing willingly and increasingly isolated to her home, and later her bedroom, we never quite get the sense of why Emily turns more and more inward.
The film retains a must-have authenticity in the beautiful production design and costume design on display. Although the film relies a little too much on a verse-chorus-verse editing pattern, there are some memorable visuals, including one terrific moment where Dickinson shares some of her writing with a Reverend, whose wife despises Emily and her family. As he sits on a bench, Davies moves from a long shot and slowly pulls us in to Dickinson’s agonizing anticipation of what he might say. It’s a wonderful scene and the film frankly could have more of those unconventional techniques, jazzing the film up a bit, making it a wee bit more accessible for a wider audience and not just the anticipated cinephiles and Dickinson fans buying tickets to the art house.
With sparing use of Dickinson’s work in voiceover, A Quiet Passion underscores the person before the art, which is a unique and intriguing approach to the Dickinson story. Davies chooses to focus more on the interpersonal connections and relationships that come and go, rather than dig around and try and determine why she wrote so much, but shared only so little. After her death in 1886. it was discovered that Dickinson had written more than 1,800 poems, only permitting a dozen of those to be published. Her topics reflected the influence and world around her, through the prism of a window or an interaction in a sitting room.
Contemplative, thoughtful, and perhaps a bit too sedentary for some viewers, A Quiet Passion seethes mood and evokes emotions. Nixon and Ehle are wonderful and the film reminds us that confidence and inner strength can be used to create some truly memorable and beautiful art, allowing Emily Dickinson’s quiet passion to be shared in the decades and centuries that followed.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- A slow burning, period drama with two terrific performances – Cynthia Nixon in a leading role and Jennifer Ehle in a supporting one, A Quiet Passion has the tools to impress a lot of people.
- The unique writing of Terence Davies fits the quirkiness of his subjects, and the film’s lyrical, almost poetic cadence finds a nice rhythm.
- Authentic in tone and atmosphere, some will swoon over the fact that this feels like a smaller scale Miramax Studios film from the 1990s.
- Not a whole lot happens, and the film’s willingness to stay indoors may reflect its main character, but can make the movie a bit of a chore to sit through for only passively interested viewers.
- I am not entirely sure A Quiet Passion digs quite deep enough for diehard Dickinson fans. It swings between a deep insightful story and being content with surface-level discoveries.
- Hard to imagine this finding a bigger audience than the arthouse.