A Quiet Passion (directed by Terence Davies). 2016.

with Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine.

with Ehle

Emily Dickinson wrote poems in the privacy of her house in Amherst Massachussetts because her father allowed her to be an artist, as long as it didn’t interfere with the rest of the household. The rest of the household included her mother, also named Emily, her sister Lavinia, and her brother Austin, along with several employees (not servants who can be insulted or overlooked). Keith Carradine plays Edward Dickinson as a stern religious paterfamilias with all of the decision making power and sometimes a modicum of grace. Jennifer Ehle keeps smiling in that ingratiating way she did as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. But Lavinia (aka Vinny) is Emily’s saving grace. Vinny keeps counsel, is constant, and tells Emily off in a way when warranted.

I enjoyed the first half of the movie with its dialogue worthy of an Oscar Wilde play: witticism, retort, further witty reply, even more playful retort. These scenes especially with Aunt Elizabeth, a horrible prig, demonstrate the intelligence and depth of the Dickinson family. For family was all to Emily. Her parents and siblings formed her whole world. As she explains to her independent sprightly friend, Vryling Buffam, I probably won’t marry, my family is enough.

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But when her family begins to die, the tone changes drastically. Davies lingers on illness and death forgetting the audience’s taste for the intellect that comes with verbal greatness. Davies wallows in the disheartening parts of being human: besides illness and death, there are infidelity and envy. It’s as if Davies has been kidnapped by the strict religion of the day that Emily rejected (she would not kneel when everyone else did) and trains his viewers in his lugubrious point of view. I kept sighing and yawning, even as Emily was dying. Poor Cynthia Nixon must pretend to have not one not two but three convulsions very slowly with melancholy music. The mother’s severe depression is demonstrated by showing her eyes well up with tears. Otherwise, she remains a cipher. It makes me think that Davies unlike Dickinson suffers from a severe lack of imagination.

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Even though the second half of the movie lagged, and ends with the most well known of Dickinson’s poems accompanying her casket, Davies frames each shot beautifully. He morphs the younger actors into their older selves artfully with time lapse photography. Visually the movie keeps you watching, along with the laudable acting, but the challenge of capturing the essence of Emily Dickinson eludes Davies.

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About Patricia Markert

Moviegoer.
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