With a terrific subject, a good cast and a capable director, “A Quiet Passion,” which dramatizes Emily Dickinson’s life, should be better than it is. The film refuses to soft-pedal Dickinson’s heartbreaking descent into bitterness and near-misanthropy, but sometimes operates with a heavy-handedness that’s certainly at odds with her poetry.
The opening scene shows Emily (played as a youth by a very appealing Emma Bell) receiving a fierce tongue-lashing from a Mount Holyoke schoolmistress for, essentially, marching to a different drummer. Young Emily declines to back down. It’s a conflict that the movie dwells on – 19th century America is a society where women should neither write poetry nor talk back, and ought to cultivate an air of gentility.
Though a bit of a homebody, Emily is far too intelligent, and has too much of an acerbic streak, to submit. The filmmaker, Britain’s Terence Davies, is capable of finesse (he directed “The House of Mirth” in 2000), but seems content here to repeat the point as bluntly as possible. The idea, I guess, is that there was nothing subtle about the restrictions on women in Emily’s time – in any case, Davies lays it on thick.
While there are funny moments of dialogue, often barbed, between Emily and her younger sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) and catty friend Vryling (Catherine Bailey), there is also a certain amount of speechifying. Dickinson’s was an educated and highly literate household, but the film’s level of conversation presses us hard to acknowledge that these are very elevated folk.
Time passes (the adult Emily is played – very well – by Cynthia Nixon), and the conventions of the day begin to weigh heavily on Emily. She is convinced that she is homely, an obstacle to romantic pursuits. Very little of her poetry is published, which vexes her mightily, as does one editor’s decision to “simplify” her punctuation. One of the few people who actually appreciates her writing is a married pastor, who eventually moves to far-off San Francisco.
As to her poetry, we hear quite a few lines, which is good if the idea is to give a general flavor of her work. But her writing was so dense and complex that it’s hard to imagine how it can be absorbed on the fly by viewers who have not studied Dickinson.
What Davies and Nixon do well is show how Emily became a recluse overcome by rancor. There are men who come to court her, but it’s to their chagrin – they are made to feel most unwelcome. It’s very sad to witness how this supremely talented woman was so disappointed by life – or, maybe more accurately, by the life of her time.
In addition to the good work by Nixon and Bell, the main supporting players acquit themselves well. Ehle and Bailey are full of life. Duncan Duff, as Emily’s brother, and Keith Carradine, as her father, resist what must have been a mighty temptation to overplay their parts.
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine
Directed by: Terence Davies.
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 126 minutes