Emily Dickinson is one of the most well known female poets of all time, and is one of the few American female poets that has been consistently included in the literary cannon. She is a poet who is equally beloved by many who are not academics; her works have resonated with the hearts of many since they first read her poetry in high school. Due to this, Terence Davies’ new film, A Quiet Passion , has the potential to garner the interest of many, though it may not be accessible to those who are not familiar with his other works, or art films in general.
Cynthia Nixon does a fine job as Dickinson, and clearly conveys the turmoil that was present in Dickinson’s soul throughout her life. Her struggles with religion are fairly well depicted, though some parts of her spiritual biography are glossed over. By opening the film with her departure from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the script does not allow the audience to see her time at Amherst Academy where for a short while she was a practicing Christian. Dickinson admits in a letter that she wrote to a friend at the time that she “never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior.” By excluding this part of her young life, the film leads the the audience to believe that she was always a skeptic and not one who genuinely tried to connect with the faith and then found that she just couldn’t find the peace and meaning that others get from the faith.
While the film does a fine job of depicting the life of Dickinson, and the major events that it does cover, it is the trappings of the film that make it harder to digest. This tailoring of the events of her life to make the film more accessible to a modern audience continues throughout the film, heavily implying ideas about her sexuality that have not necessarily been proven, and possibly exaggerating her struggles with seizures later in life. Though the film seems to take great pains to be accessible to a broad audience, its abstract moments of introspection end up just becoming distracting and confusing.
The film struggles to find its identity as either an intellectual film that uses more abstract imagery to explore the themes and ideas explored in Dickinson’s poetry, or a more generic film that simply recounts the life story of Emily Dickinson to a modern audience. One such example of this is the recitation of specific poems during the film’s depiction of her life events, making her poetry seem very concrete and grounded in certain events of her life, rather than exploring more abstract or metaphysical ideas. Dickinson is most known for the peculiar relationship to death that is present in many of her poems such as “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, though the major childhood event that helped inspire this relationship with death, the death of her cousin Sophia Holland from typhus, is not depicted at all.
While A Quiet Passion is overall rather enjoyable — the interactions between Dickinson and her friend Vryling Buffam are quite entertaining, if a bit over the top, and the drama between the Dickinson family is quite solid — it fails to decide what kind of film it ultimately wants to be. As it is, the film sits as a hybrid of a generic biographical film tailored align more with modern social ideals, and an introspective think-piece on the works of Emily Dickinson. In order for the film to thrive as an intellectual film it needs to dig deeper into the themes of death and non-conformity to create an emotional moving and inspiring story. While on the other hand if the film wants to cater to a more broad audience then it needs to pull back from some of the abstract scenes that just end up coming off as strange, and give a more full depiction of Dickinson’s life. The film is likely to resonate with fans of Dickinson’s poetry, though it may not generate much interest among those who aren’t already familiar with her work.