A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

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