“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)
In A quiet passion British director Terence Davies gives us a portrait of American poet Emily Dickinson. When we first see young Emily (then played by Emma Bell) she’s at a Christian boarding school. The stubborn Emily refuses to accept the school’s religious precepts. Her liberal-minded father (Keith Carradine) seems to take Emily’s unconventionality as a folly of youth. This is a way for Davies to say that Dickinson’s refusal to act and think outside of what was expected at the time, will color her life as well as her poetry. All her life, the unmarried Dickinson lived with the family at their home in Amherst, Massachusetts where most of the film is set. Throughout the film, religious zealots and moralists are being rightly ridiculed. There was no way that Emily would let her Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland), for instance, dictate what she should or should not say or think. As an adult, Emily (now played in a spectacular performance by Cynthia Nixon) befriends Vryling Wilder Buffum. Played by Catherine Bailey, it is a comic masterpiece of precision. With every flick of the fan, eye rolling insinuations and flirting stares, Vryling is very funny and entertaining to Emily and her sister Lavinia “Vinnie” (the marvellous understated Jennifer Ehle). A quiet passion is actually quite witty. There is joy and exaltation in Emily’s smiles, and laughter in her face and her eyes. But later in life she suffers terribly from the death of her parents. And she feels lonely and think of herself as ugly caused by a lifetime celibacy. She becomes a recluse, seldom leaving her room. The only thing she can rely on is her writing and her sister, also a celibate. Emily has screaming matches with Austin (Duncan Duff), her married brother, after she finds him in the living room with a married woman. Emily gets sick from Bright’s disease and her whole body is taken by terrifying, unstoppable tremors. Although Emily Dickinson wrote close to 1800 poems, fewer than a dozen were published during her lifetime. Because of Dickinson’s innovative use of punctuation and various styles and forms, she is now considered one of the most revered American poet. I remember hearing American composer Aaron Copland’s Twelve poems by Emily Dickinson, and now his use of sudden dissonant outbursts makes sense. Here we see Dickinson in the early scenes bursting with uncontrollable joy, or in later years as sorrows and pain filled her days and nights, being visited by depression and anger. It mirrors the exalted and impetuous nature of Dickinson’s poetry. In A quiet passion, Davies shows the family’s spending quiet evenings with only lamps to light up the living room. These were different times. Davies is not afraid to linger and let the silences create a reflective atmosphere. Those beautiful 360 degree pans of the rooms or, as a complete contrast, the walks in most the sunny and colourful gardens is the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. The cast is splendid. To name a few, Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s loving sister and Catherine Bailey as her best friend, form with Nixon a trio of unforgettable actresses. What I find most compelling is the respect for Dickinson from all involved. Cynthia Nixon’s complete commitment should be saluted at Oscar time. And let’s hope that the film and Terence Davies will also be remembered.
A quiet passion