Terrence Davies has directed a masterwork true to his film’s touting. The Amherst maid’s reclusive existence is meshed beautifully with her poetry. Emily Dickinson’s isolation produced over 1800 poems, over 500 of them on the subject of nature. The family estate and its lush grounds and gardens are slowly shown through rolled glass window frames. The camera slowly rotates over vase, decanter, candle and desk. Piano and hearth and clock chime center family life. We are transported to the inspiration for as many as six beautifully recited poems: her experience put as impetus for her poetry in detailed fashion.
With the same clockwork precision, the camera circles around each seated family member, and we come to understand Emily Dickinson’s close familiar network.
In “A Quiet Passion”, we follow the young Emily ( Emma Bell ) as she leaves Mount Holyoke Seminary. Her studies include dreary ecclesiastical history. She quips that she will not be “forced to piety”. Her soul is her own. Her distain for being charged with “servant duties” is shown in one scene where she slams a plate on the edge of the dining table. Her disciplinarian father has pointed out that the plate was dirty. Her small rebellions include not going to church services:” God does not need me in a pew to know what is in my heart.”Dickinson loved Emerson, and his faithfulness to a person’s deeper self was her truth.
Cynthia Nixon taking the role of the adult poet is mesmerizing. She is not likeable, and holds herself distant and a tad resentful. As poet Adrienne Rich has written, Dickinson ” chose silence for entertainment”. Yet, her soft barbs like “cherish your ignorance” are offered up in candleglow.
Her parents are played by Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon. It is interesting to see how ” in my father’s house” begets asking permission to write late at night. She prefers to compose from one to three in the morning. We hear that women should not take the stage or exhibit themselves, and that women can not create the treasure of literature.
Certainly, her spinx-like mother spends most of her time behind lace curtains and under bed clothes. It is remarked when she comes down from her bedroom that it is like the gods coming down from Mount Olympus. Bacon plays a dreamy matriarch, who is often ill. Her own death scene mirrors Emily’s own. She is a sad mom for whom post-partum depression seems to have not left. Dickinson’s father’s funeral cortège produces her ” of so Divine a loss”. Emily does not attend, but sequesters herself in her room. She states that she does not now cross her father’s ground.
Her sister Lavinia is at first Rose Williams and then the lovely Jennifer Ehle. Vinnie’s sweetness and insight provide a nice foil to Emily’s eccentricities. We hear them discussing ” Wuthering Heights” and the Brontes and George Elliot. Tennyson’s “Hiawatha” does not fare as well, and to Emily “is but gruel”. Vinnie’s statement that ” integrity can be ruthless” shows a gentler, more tolerant spirit than Emily’s.
Jodhi May is her betrayed sister-in-law, Susan. Emily’s loyalty to her is deep. Catherine Bailey, the bantering, cheeky, libertine friend was added to the script to give Emily’s wit a chance to shine outside her poetry and her immediate family. As Vryling Buffam, she seems to be the flighty rebel Emily wishes to be. The dutiful Emily can be cantankerous, but never as outlandish as her friend. The film stresses Dickinson’s sincerity and wit. Can virtues be vices in disguise?
Provincial life provides scarce acquaintances. Aunt Elizabeth ( Annette Badland) and Austin ( Benjamin Wainwright ) provide her most heated arguments. Emily is shown speaking harshly to employees, but she later apologizes. Her ambition in winning a bread baking contest seems to have gotten the better of her. Later, she shows the same attack dog temperament when she admonishes her publisher, Mr. Bowles, for tampering with her punctuation and capitalization.
Emily’s first poem was a mock valentine published anonymously in the Springfield Republic in 1852. Thwarted love has been the central myth about Dickinson. The “poetry of misery” her one-time publisher calls it. Yet, one of my favorite scenes was Emily holding her nephew Ned and reciting ” I’m Nobody Who Are You” to him. We see how her art intertwines with her experiences. This is one of the most remarkable feats of Director Davies.
“A Quiet Passion” has a beautiful score, and cinematography that keeps the thoughts coming. Hazy, shadowed doorways and door knobs symbolically open and close like Dickinson’s soul. The ending has her as a chloriformed hysteric, hyperventilating in seizures that are as fitful to watch. The death rattle and overhead bed shot are a tad period heavy.
Her love for Reverend Wadsworth, a married man is treated stoically. His cold wife and the hot water tea scene is perfect. Mrs. Wadsworth’s, ” levity and the will of God are incapatible” makes this “tea party” memorable ! The scene where her father wishes to pay 500 pounds for a Civil War substitute for Austin is linked with Emily’s phrases ” cavalry of woe” and ” plumed procession”. When Rev. Wadsworth admirably pronounces her poems ” remarkable & non-compromising” , we feel her joy, not her bitterness.
Dickinson is original and important among Transcendental poets. She communes on a high spiritual level. Yet, often she sees nature as indifferent to humankind. Its pageantry like in ” There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter’s afternoons/ That oppresses, like the Heft/ Of Cathedral Tunes-Heavenly Hurt, it gives us-/We can find no scar/But internal difference,/Where the Meanings, are-/
Dickinson’s playfulness is shown by making bees swashbuckling pirates, butterflies navies, and rats concise tenants. Letter writing was how she talked to the world, but Emily Dickinson (1830 -1886) bequeathed quite a poetic legacy after her death. In this film about her life, enjoy the languor and the preacher in the window light sequence, and learn a little of libertine Puritans while you applaud Mr. Davies for bringing Emily Dickinson into the light for many.