In the opening scene of A Quiet Passion, the new historical drama from British writer/director Terence Davies, we see a young Emily Dickinson refusing an offer to save her soul through baptism and a public declaration of faith. She sees no need to publicly profess what she already inwardly believes. The young poet-to-be rebels against any institution that seeks to oppress its followers. She believes in God, but does not feel compelled to prove it. This streak of contrariness will come to define her entire life.
A Quiet Passion is an unusual biopic. The emphasis is placed on Emily as a person, not a poet. Her relationships with her parents and her siblings take center stage throughout the film. One brief scene mentions the anonymous publication of her first poem. One of her earliest rejection letters states: “Women I fear cannot create the permanent treasures of literature.” It’s worth a chuckle given the fact that her poetry has survived for over 150 years. It’s another hour into the film before she mentions to the local clergyman that she has seven poems that have seen publication. We are not privy to her artistic successes and failures. (This is in part because Dickinson’s lasting fame was achieved posthumously.)
Emily is the child of a depressed mother (Joanna Bacon) and a stern, evangelical father (Keith Carradine), and their imprint on her is undeniable. “I mistook melancholia for contentment”, Emily’s mother says at one point, and we can see the young poet doing likewise. She buries herself in her poetry, ignores suitors and chooses to live a solitary life with her family. “You have a life. I have a routine,” she tells a family friend.
A Quiet Passion slowly builds a sense of momentum. The opening thirty minutes of the historical drama are so staid and formal that the characters are smothered by their 19th century surroundings. However, as Emily the character begins to come out of her shell, the narrative becomes more and more engaging. Her witty banter and wordplay with her friends and family is reminiscent of Whit Stillman’s 2016 release Love & Friendship.
Terence Davies is a master craftsman, but his camera never draws attention to itself. He and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister seamlessly blend some impressive shots into the narrative. Pay careful attention to the two spinning tracking shots that come in the first and third acts of the film. Without a word of dialogue, they vividly convey the manner in which the Dickinson family has changed over the course of the film. Another stand out moment is the passage of time illustrated during the taking of a set of family portraits with each key cast member slowly morphing into an older version of himself/herself.
A Quiet Passion delivers the “who, what, where, and when” of Emily Dickinson’s life, but it falls short when it comes to explaining “why”. After spending two hours with Emily, the audience still doesn’t understand her motivations. She remains a cipher throughout the film. Many artists reveal themselves solely through their work. The fact that Emily remains an enigma may very well be the point.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.