An oil painting smeared with repressed feminine emotion, Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, is best when it comes with a light touch. Full of caustic wit and candlelit wonder, the shots obsess over the cottage enclosure just as Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon, fluttery and tense) claws at her own captivity.
This velvety, firelit prison is the perfect place to grapple with what it means to be a progressive, a Christian and a poet. The poetry surrounds us, coming to us as godhead voiceover. The sacred texts sprung from this struggle.
God is central to the film as an extension of patriarchy. Dickinson’s father is not especially repressive for the time, advocating his newspaper friends to publish her poetry, but remains a symbol of a society for which old maids were quite real. The film opens with Dickinson’s diagnosis at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary of being a “no-hoper.” Her anti-evangelical, anti-establishment faith tears schisms in her academic and personal life, and does little to assuage her growing dissatisfaction with her sheltered home life.
Dickinson moves back home with her mother, father, sister and brother to live quietly in their estate. As she and her ambition age, they crawl deeper and deeper inside herself.
This is broken up by the outrageous feminist friend that the Dickinson sisters make, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). She accentuates the film’s weaknesses: a penchant for dialogue through opposition (“If women are such and such, what does that make men,” that sort of thing), a tendency towards overwritten wit, and a smugness so palpable her presence suffocates her screen partners. She represents everything Dickinson is not and what she sometimes wishes she could be — loud, forward and pompously atheist. She’s Richard Dawkins in a bonnet.
But Dickinson cannot completely give up her faith, though her belief in God reflects her mental state. As relationships bloom and deteriorate (her brother brings home a wife whom Dickinson takes to instantly), she sees God as more and more cruel. Age is unkind to all, accentuated by their shifting views on docility and rebellion as much as their wrinkled faces and stretched moralities.
Davies has a few formal innovations (like an aging montage masquerading as a photo session, a Civil War slideshow and some molasses-slow, full-circle pans), but his most striking images come when breaking free of the constricting realism he adheres to the entire film. When Dickinson’s depression rattles loose from its mental cage and sprawls into her subconscious, the resulting nightmare sequence is a touching and unsettling depiction of mental illness in a movie that otherwise avoids it.
A Quiet Passion is at its best when its silence is broken by images, not words. The horror of death and disease descending upon a family has a startling effect, stripping the decorum away to reveal the same ugly humanity that was always lurking underneath. Itching at the family’s (and mid-1800s society’s) facade, like picking a scab, the respite earned from monotony is tragedy.
While some exchanges can devolve into tedious quip battles, and its finale sprawls as unmetered as a coffeeshop open mic night, A Quiet Passion has enough beauty (especially in Nixon’s zombie-eyed performance) for viewers to appreciate the journey.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.