A Quiet Passion

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful

Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law comes over in the wee hours, alarmed to see a light on, only to find Emily awake and preparing to write poetry in the quiet of the night. The look on Emily’s face is beautiful as she describes her pastime of writing privately when everyone’s asleep. But there’s also a chill; Emily cannot enjoy her elation without being critical of herself, or sharply observing where she stands relative to another human. “You have a life,” she reminds her sister-in-law, in her marriage and her family. “I have a routine.”

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All through Emily Dickinson’s life and career, as A Quiet Passion imagines them, runs an unceasing bitterness. In the movie, Emily stands apart from the girls in her school days, refusing to adhere to Christian doctrine solely out of subservience. She’s a high-minded, independent thinker, but she knows that comes with a cost. She will never marry, she realizes. Did she feel forced into being a spinster, or did she choose it? Whatever the root is, this woman cannot bite her tongue or squash her blunt honesty. She speaks as boldly and imperfectly in life as her poetry is precise, carefully chosen, inscribed exactly down to the semicolon. (She scolds her visiting publisher for changing punctuation.)

Cynthia Nixon is an unexpected but wonderful choice to play Emily Dickinson. There’s something clear and contemporary about her. She is meant to look plain, less fresh than her attractive sister, yet when she reads several poems to us, Nixon’s voice has a distinctive girlish tickle to it, the light airiness that emerges whenever Emily gets the chance to talk about her work.

The talented Jennifer Ehle offers Nixon sweet support as her sister Vinnie, and Keith Carradine is a gruff but affectionate patriarch, Emily’s father Edward. Duncan Duff, rounding out the family as Emily’s brother Austin, is strangely wooden, looking like he’s trying to remember his lines as he says them.

Davies, who writes every movie he directs, clearly has a personal connection to Emily. In her rigid social circle of 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily feels out of time. When she lashes out or strikes a sour note—and she does so increasingly as she grows more ill—it’s a shock. The acid Nixon conjures to spurn a gentleman caller is a surprise; no, Davies doesn’t let Emily and her misery, sometimes self-imposed, off the hook.

The movie focuses more on her hardship as she’s overtaken by the violent convulsions of Bright’s disease, and the passion promised by the title starts to recede. She talks of her poetry, but we don’t spend much time with it overall, especially as her death draws closer. The final moments of the plot hinge instead on a long climactic standoff with Austin over his infidelity. Though based in truth, that’s a peculiar precursor to Emily’s death.

By the end, I felt that Davies, taking a bold and handsome stab at an immortal writer, had become more absorbed in Emily’s pain and her cruelty than in her gift. His Emily Dickinson—a force of nature, a contrarian, a doomed soul—still feels unknowable. I suspect Davies didn’t fully have answers to understand Emily, even though he does (sometimes too obviously) have her read her poems over significant moments of her life story. An artist like Emily Dickinson is predestined to be an outsider; unrecognized in life, even, only really finding favor in the silence of death.
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