A group of well-dressed women line up as their teacher tells them to move to the right or left based on their faith. Moving to either side, only one is left standing in the middle. Here, we meet our protagonist, a young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell). This is just the beginning of Dickinson’s struggle with her faith.
In A Quiet Passion Dickinson constantly grapples with the idea of her independence in terms of her faith. She believes she does not need to follow customs as “God knows what is in her heart.” With this mindset, Dickinson often clashes with her family. She refuses to go to church and kneel, even when the rest of her family does.
Even with moments of tension, Dickinson’s bond with her family is apparent from the start. She is filled with joy when they arrive to take her back home. Here, we meet the rest of her family. Her father (Keith Carradine), her older brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), and her younger sister Vinnie (Rose Williams). Her mother (Joanna Bacon) has notably stayed home. About twenty minutes into the film, the director smoothly transitions to the older version of each character. They all sit for a portrait, and as the camera pans closer, their faces slowly start to morph into older versions of Emily (Cynthia Nixon), Austin (Duncan Duff), and Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). Director Terrence Davies doesn’t portray Dickinson as anything but human. She has strong morals - that sometimes go too far - and struggles of self-worth.
As Dickinson’s world slowly shrinks, so does ours.
Other than a couple of scenes at a school and a performance, A Quiet Passion doesn’t stray from the home or outer fields of the Dickinson estate. Other than a few minor characters that pop in and out, the Dickinson family - which later includes Austin’s wife Susan (Jodhi May)- are the only ones we see. Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend of the Dickinson sisters is the only non-family member seen on the screen more than once. Moments with Buffam are filled with witty dialogue. When Buffam is on the screen, the surrounding itself also seems to lighten. It is with Buffam that Dickinson leaves the home and we can enjoy the sunny days in a garden filled with various flowers with them. These instances feel like a breath of fresh air for the moment. However, don’t let a couple of calm and comedic scenes fool you. This is not a lighthearted film. It is filled with grief and death particularly in the latter half. As Dickinson slowly becomes a recluse, we barely see past the steps of the stairs. Many shots in the latter half of the film are confined to Dickinson’s bedroom, her desk, or her living room.
Ovid.tv explores the ideas of death in A Quiet Passion
The topic of death is constant as it weaves throughout the narrative. Emily Dickinson’s fear of death is present from the start. When young Dickinson bids her aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) goodbye, she worries about her aunt’s age and health. The worry on her face is palpable. Unaware of Dickinson’s anxieties, her brother and sister joke behind her about the ticking of the clock of life.
As deaths begin to occur to her family, the physical and mental toll it has on her start to become apparent, her appearance becoming gaunt, and she only wears white. Her essence becomes devoid of color in the last moments of the film.
The beauty of Dickinson’s poetry is not ignored.
Background music in A Quiet Passion is notably minimal. In its place are voiceovers by Dickinson as she recites her poems. Each poem reflects what is occurring in the scene. In these moments with no dialogue, we can focus both on the words of Dickinson’s poems but also the surrounding scenery. In one moment, as Dickinson recites her poem The Heart asks Pleasure first, the camera pans through the living room to each of the family members as they sit by flickering light, doing their own thing in a quiet, slightly gloomy atmosphere.
Biopics about the mysterious life of Emily Dickinson are in no short supply. Standing at two hours, A Quiet Passion did start to feel slow at some points, in this writer’s opinion. The dialogue in the film is reflective of the time, and there is a scene reflecting on the casualties of the Civil War. While historically accurate, it felt a bit abrupt and out of place.
If looking for a lighthearted film that portrays Dickinson’s life completely accurately, A Quiet Passion may not be satisfying. For those who enjoy biopics with well-done cinematography and the simplicity of period films with strong dialogue, give this film a go!
Length 126 Minutes
Director: Terence Davies
To view the film, visit OVID.tv page for A Quiet Passion
Images courtesy of OVID.tv
About the Author:
Lisa Ryou is from a suburb of Chicago. Having lived near Chicago her whole life, she is no stranger to the creative scene of the city. She is currently studying History, Museum Studies, and Art at the University of Michigan. She has been involved in fine arts her whole life and tries to use her works, both art and writing, as a way to give voice to BIPOC. When she is not at school, you can find her baking, reading, painting, or taking photos.