For the Love of Movies: A Quiet Passion portrays Emily Dickinson with precision

The poetry of 19th century American life is on display in Terence Davies’ latest film


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In Terence Davies’ rightfully poetic A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson says posthumous acclaim is reserved for those who “were not worth remembering while alive.” The irony, of course, is that Dickinson herself was not awarded acclaim until after her death, but as the movie shows, this does not mean that she is not worth remembering.

The film opens at Mount Holyoke female seminary, where Dickinson was educated as an adolescent. She is not immediately apparent among a group of her peers, but as the girls separate into groups on the left and right of the screen, young Emily stands steadfastly in the middle, putting her at odds with her contemporaries from the very beginning.

Throughout her life, Dickinson fought an ideological war with 19th century ideals, butting heads with Christians and misogynists alike. Even before she started her lifelong career as an anonymously published poet, Dickinson had a tendency to speak her mind with all the wit and resolve of a quick-tongued politician.

This attribute is on full display in Davies’ film, but it also exhibits a seemingly contradictory attribute: Dickinson’s decorousness. The esteemed poet undoubtedly had a heart filled with iron, but outwardly, she remained sociable and kind, at least until an older and more unhappy Dickinson began to fill the former’s shoes.

A great success of the film is Davies’ ability to seamlessly transition from the young, genteel Emily to the old, haggardly Miss Dickinson. After her family rescues her from the seminary, the rest of the film is shot in and around the Dickinson household, and much like it did in her life, the home becomes Dickinson’s world. And it is not a very happy world.

Dickinson’s poetry narrates the film, and what starts as joyful celebrations of love and life quickly turns a more cynical leaf. Death, loss, frustrated sexual desires and bickering siblings underscore the day-to-day life of Emily’s existence. There is no question why the poet liked to write from 3 to 6 in the morning; it was the only time she was able to find peace and quiet.

Davies, on the other hand, is able to write, or more accurately, direct his poetry at any time of day, and the film excels on his behalf. Few living filmmakers could lend such a sense of intrigue and flow to the life of an estranged spinster who spent most of her life confined to a single household.

A Quiet Passion is a great starting point for Davies’ filmography. It is easily accessible through the recognizability of its protagonist, but it manages to retain many of Davies’ most famed auteurist traits.

That being said, this is not your average biopic. Its pacing is that of 19th century life. It consciously retains some of the moments that may or may not be considered exciting by the 21st century viewer, and its order is adamantly chronological. Where other filmmakers might trade one sequence for another in the pursuit of logical progression, Davies forces the audience to watch the events as they unfold.

Getting past these idiosyncrasies might take the first-time Davies viewer a couple of scenes, but once acclimated, the film will inform, titillate, interest, impassion, sadden and depress. Much like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, this is a rare auteurist film about an auteur, and it is not to be missed.

_MOVE gives A Quiet Passion 4 out of 5 stars._

Edited by Claire Colby |

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