A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May
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So much wonderful banter and energy let down by a downward spiral that makes it tough to submit yourself.
Many artists are lucky enough to receive the full praise and admiration for their work in their lifetimes. Others, such as Emily Dickinson, do not. As Dickinson herself puts it in Terence Davis’ biopic, A Quiet Passion, which depicts the life of the great American poet: posthumous praise is for those who were disagreeable in their lifetimes. And according to this film, she could be quite disagreeable indeed.
Part of the charm of A Quiet Passion is knowing that Dickinson’s work would go on to receive critical and commercial success, all 1,800 poems she wrote (give or take), and that she would become renowned as one of the greatest American poets of all time. Such a title did not come in her lifetime. In A Quiet Passion, we see Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) as a socially mischievous, emotionally deep, and poetically ground-breaking enigma for her epoch. She ignores almost all social conventions and never seems to leave her house.
The opening scene captures her indignant spirit beautifully as she refuses to stand with those who wish to serve God and those who do not, but still wish to repent for their sins at the school where she spent much of her youth. Instead, she stands alone. When the headmistress questions her defiance, she explains the reasons in a quiet, logical, and scathing critique of religious dogmatism. This spark of rebellion is there throughout the film as she interacts with her family, and slowly gets a handful of poems published, which are heavily edited anyhow (she had fewer than a dozen published in her lifetime). These early years of her life are full of joy, a joy that is reinforced by the candescent lighting of almost every scene. This film is a delight to look at, even if it is almost entirely set within the Dickinson house.
It is the film’s latter half where the joy subsides. Emily slowly becomes melancholy and the house is slowly suffocated into near constant anguish. This is when the film’s over-two-hours run-time becomes most apparent. It may be argued that Terence Davis (who is familiar with period drama such as last year’s critical darling, Sunset Song and his best known autobiographical film, Distant Voices, Still Lives) is keeping true to the hardships and struggles of Dickinson’s life, but that does not necessarily connote something that we want to watch. And it is a shame, because the cast, all of whom are fine actors, bring so much wonderful banter and energy. But, as the film grows darker, it isn’t enough to make you willing to submit yourself to the struggles of Emily Dickinson’s twilight years; and she certainly does struggle.