Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) had less than a dozen of her 1,800 poems published while she was still alive. Since her work was appreciated posthumously, it makes sense that a movie about her life would be about something other than her literary work, which was unrecognized by her contemporaries.
Writer/director Terrence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) resisted the temptation to examine Dickinson’s poems, but instead examined her tortured soul. As a result, A Quiet Passion is an exquisite costume drama that presents the protagonist as an iconoclastic visionary and a retiring recluse.
The socially-conscious production suggests that the agnostic, feminist abolitionist was ahead of her time, and that she withdrew from the world in response to being raised in an era when evangelism, slavery, and male chauvinism were the order of the day. The movie focuses on her fragile psyche that was further crippled by her cloistered existence.
As the film unfolds, we find Emily (played in her teens by Emma Bell and later as an adult by Cynthia Nixon) finishing a frustrating freshman year at Mount Holyoke. She decides to drop out in order to avoid having to conform to the pious practices that were dictated by the Christian revival movement. That pressure was being exerted on her by the school’s president, Mary Lyon (Sara Vertongen). Dickinson refused to conform because she saw her relationship with God as a private and personal matter, not one that demanded public displays of devotion in a church service.
So she returns to Amherst, Massachusetts, and lives on the Dickinson family estate with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), brother (Duncan Duff), and sister (Jennifer Ehle). Unfortunately, Emily is unable to bite her tongue when visitors like the local pastor (Miles Richardson) or even a potential suitor (Stefan Menaul) make social calls.
Even though she has trusted confidantes in her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) and Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens), Dickinson’s first preference is to remain in her upstairs bedroom where she can write her poems in secret. Cynthia Nixon convincingly conveys the emotional fires that simmer just beneath the surface of Emily Dickinson’s stoic countenance.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for mature themes, disturbing images, and suggestive material. Production Studio: Hurricane Films. Running time: 126 minutes. Distributor: Music Box Films.