While she is now regarded as one of the great American poets during the 19th century, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) did not get much recognition during her lifetime. Although she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, only a few of them were published while she was alive, and most of those published poems were significantly altered by her publishers just because her style did not fit to the conventional poetic rules during that period. She kept leading her reclusive lifestyle in the meantime, and her brilliance is recognized only after her sister found a cache of poems she kept to herself for many years.
Some of you may think that Dickinson’s life is a depressing subject to watch, but “A Quiet Passion” presents her story with not only good mood but also considerable wit and spirit. While it is as somber as you can expect from the movie about a reclusive real-life heroine, it never overlooks that quiet but palpable spiritual/artistic passion inside her, and the result is a vivid, splendid drama which shows us some interesting things about her life and poetry.
The opening scene of the movie, which is set in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Massachusetts, effectively establishes the tone for its story and heroine. The schoolmistress demands her students to choose between two groups according to how strong their religious faith is, but young Dickinson, who is played well by Emma Bell at this point, defiantly refuses to make a choice because she believes she does not belong to any of two groups. That behavior of hers certainly displeases the schoolmistress, and we are not so surprised when her family later comes to the school for taking her back to their home in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Dickinson’s family is relatively liberal in the standards of their time. Her parents allow their children to have their own independent mind, and that aspect is amusingly reflected by a deadpan scene where they have to spend some time with a very religious relative who does not regard highly of the outspoken attitude of Dickinson and her two siblings. While sticking to courteous manners, Dickinson and her siblings have a wry fun with indirectly expressing their moral opinions, and that may remind you of those witty parlor conversations from Jane Austen’s novels, which were published not long before Dickinson’s birth.
Because they are still young, the passage of time feels trivial to Dickinson and her siblings, but time quickly passes as it always has, as shown from one beautifully melancholic montage scene. One by one, Dickinson and her family members stand in front of a camera, and we see each of them gradually changed as they get older.
Although she now looks less lively and gaunter than before, Dickinson, who is now played by Cynthia Nixon, still retains her spirit, and so does her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). While they still live in their family house without any particular possibility of marriage, they always find something to amuse and excite them, and they surely welcome Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey), a smart, forthright woman who instantly clicks well with them during their first meeting.
Meanwhile, Dickinson continues to write poems as usual. After getting a permission from her father, she has her own private time for writing poetry during early morning, and she already published several poems although she did not get any recognition for that (her first published poem was anonymously introduced, for instance). When she shows some of her poems to a handsome married minister she happens to be infatuated with, she cannot help but look like an anxious suitor, and she surely becomes happy when he shows considerable admiration toward her poetry.
While she looks like a free spirit at times, Dickinson continues to stick to her insular domestic life along with her sister, and her life in the family house is sometimes not very happy. She clashes with her family members from time to time, she begins to suffer from a chronic illness, and she becomes more reclusive than before.
Some of her notable poems are quoted throughout the film, and director/writer Terrence Davis, who previously impressed me a lot with “Of Time and the City” (2008) and “The Deep Blue Sea” (2011), did a commendable job of contextualizing them into drama and images. While the movie was shot in Belgium, its period atmosphere is quite authentic, and Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister provides a number of beautiful moments including a striking scene involved with Dickinson’s imaginary object of desire, which she may desperately yearn for but cannot embrace easily.
And Cynthia Nixon gives a superlative performance to remember. I came to notice her only after “Sex and the City” (2008) and its awful 2010 sequel, but then her heartbreaking performance in “James White” (2015) showed me more of her talent, and her acting here in this movie is certainly one of the best ones I saw during this year. Nixon is also surrounded by a number of good performers including Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, and Jennifer Ehle, and Ehle deserves praises for being an equal acting match for Nixon in their several scenes.
As I told you before, I cannot understand poetry well, but I can appreciate good films about poetry at least, and I found that “A Quiet Passion” is an admirable movie packed with fabulous elements including Nixon’s performance. While it is indeed one of those ‘slow’ movies, it is not your typical stuffy period drama at all, and I sincerely recommend you to give it a chance.