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'A Quiet Passion' illustrates the conflicted life of poet Emily Dickinson

Posted May 8

“A QUIET PASSION” — 3 stars — Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May; PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material); Broadway

“A Quiet Passion” is a portrait of a woman whose voice was anything but quiet. Director Terence Davies’ effort traces the life of 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson as she confronts the world around her and, more importantly, the world inside herself.

The film begins with Dickinson as a young woman, played by Emma Bell and already coming in conflict with the standards of her time. Her ambiguous religious beliefs are challenged by unsympathetic, fire-and-brimstone taskmasters at school, and her early efforts at published poetry are stymied by the presumption that women cannot pen worthwhile verse. Her immediate family is more sympathetic but seems to understand that Emily has a lonely life ahead of her.

Around the end of the first act, we transition to Dickinson’s adulthood. Emily (now played by Cynthia Nixon) still lives in the family home and has seen some modest success as a poet, but her adversaries are still the same.

The driving conflict of “A Quiet Passion” is Dickinson’s internal struggle as she attempts to reconcile her faith in and understanding of God, her determination to achieve recognized success as an artist and her battle against the culture around her. Early in the film her opinions are cloaked in wit and shared by her family. But as time goes on, the humor fades into bitterness.

In the meantime, we see the comings and goings of her loved ones. After the Civil War breaks out, her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), helps her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) evade the draft, leaving the young man with a weight of guilt he carries into an unhappy marriage with a woman named Susan (Jodhi May). Emily becomes close with a spunky socialite named Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), and they share their aspirations and frustrations of marriage.

Emily seems as conflicted with marriage as she is with religion. She describes herself as a “kangaroo among beauties” in regard to the former, and a “no-hoper” in regard to the latter. She seems to hold a fundamental longing for success in both areas, but stubbornly rejects their cultural interpretation, which creates more internal conflict for the writer, and more inspiration for her work.

Davies inserts overdubs of Dickinson’s poetry at a regular pace throughout the film, designed to turn the poet’s struggles into graceful eloquence. It helps to turn “A Quiet Passion” into more of a portrait than a story, and a tragic one at that, though it does less to celebrate the significance of Dickinson’s work so much as to explain what inspired it.

Nixon’s performance as Dickinson is effective, particularly as she shows the poet coming to grips with her own frailties after spending so much time highlighting others’. Davies also injects some interesting style elements, such as a percussive element to quiet scenes of awkwardness and a creative portrait morphing that transitions “A Quiet Passion’s” characters into their older forms.

Overall, “A Quiet Passion” is interesting if not always enjoyable, although it gets better as it moves along and will probably resonate most with the 19th-century poet’s fans. Dickinson comes across as a specific feminine victim of her circumstances, but she is ultimately relatable beyond those confines, even if it takes the film a while to show it.

“A Quiet Passion” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material; running time: 125 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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