A Quiet Passion (2016)

  • Time: 125 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama
  • Director: Terence Davies
  • Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine


The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognized artist.

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  • Something is woefully amiss in A Quiet Passion, writer-director Terence Davies’ meticulously crafted portrait of Emily Dickinson, arguably America’s greatest poet. On its surface, the film is a perfect marriage of filmmaker and subject as both Davies and Dickinson’s works possess an ornate plainness and lyrical sensitivity that render their works transcendent. Yet A Quiet Passion is not so much a terrible film as it is a film that is terribly bungled in execution.

    As vivified by both Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon, Dickinson is a woman who wasn’t afraid to go against the grain, especially when it came to matters concerning religion and gender. Before insecurities and illness descended upon her, she was a sociable sort, preferring the company of sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) and their friend Miss Buffum (Catherine Bailey), the latter prone to dispensing such witticisms as “Women must aspire to be younger than their waistlines.” She’s passionate about her work, though she will later worry that she will never be acknowledged during her lifetime. Her independent spirit, too, will soon be victim to her self-doubts, leading her to brandish her unlovability like a shield and lash out at those who love her.

    On paper, A Quiet Passion may resemble a moving, sometimes incisive exploration of the artist as woman, of how the personal can both inform and be apart from the work being created, and of how striving in anonymity could dishearten and corrode the spirit. What is on film, however, plays like a drawing-room comedy directed by Ingmar Bergman. The main culprit is the formal period language Davies imposes which, with the actors’ theatrical delivery and Davies’ characteristic languid pacing, combines to completely make the film a thoroughly grating experience. More often than not, A Quiet Passion comes off like a comic skit – archness doesn’t so much imbue the film as suffocate it. “What does it feel like to be a father?” “Fatherly.” goes one exchange. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” “Perhaps contempt breeds familiarity.” goes another. And so on and so on.

    There are moments when Emily smashes a plate in response to her stern father’s remark on its being filthy, or when Emily, wracked with pain, tells her father’s servants to take the bread out of the oven. Moments later, after a harsh scolding from her father for her behaviour, she praises him for making a clear distinction between servants and employees. Whether these are meant to be intentionally amusing is difficult to gauge. Equally hard to assess are the performances since the character’s trajectories are deliberately narrowed and the increasingly nonsensical dialogue repels any attempts at proper characterisation.

    A Quiet Passion is unfailingly lovely to look at – cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister manages to make the oppressiveness of the interiors look splendid – but whether it illuminates Dickinson or her poetry (used here almost like musical underscoring) is highly debatable.

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