Film Review: A poetic interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s life

“A Quiet Passion”, an English-Belgian co-production, won the Grand Prix at the 2016 Gand Film Festival. Terence Davies’ film is a biography of Emily Dickinson, now considered one of the most important American poets. Even according to 19th century standards, Dickinson led a retired, quiet life and was considered an eccentric.

film-quiet-passion-emily-dickinson-2Nowadays, Emily Dickinson’s nearly 2000 poems are considered very modern. Most people familiar with the English language and its literature, will have read one or more in anthologies. A selection of these poems crop up as comments on events, or as part of conversations in this film. The film and poetry share a kind of repressed stress, crisis, feelings and ideas. Much remains contained or is suggested – though feelings do explode.

People familiar with what is known about Emily Dickinson and her life, will notice a few liberties Terence Davies took. Provided avid Dickinson fans are able to temporarily forget and forgive, this film is an exceptionally beautiful interpretation of her life.

The film opens with Emily at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, wearing black. The audience is treated to what will be the film’s focal point: Dickinson’s shocking honesty and integrity. Society’s rigid rules and religion which permeates so much, make Dickinson a rebel and misfit.

film-quiet-passion-emily-dickinson-1Dickinson is taken home and henceforth, will live with her family at their home in Amherst. This does not make life easy for her, or for all those who come into contact with her.

Her father, played by Keith Carradine, shows a few traits of the upright Victorian Pater Familias. He is dead against women cultivating and using their talents. One scene shows Emily politely and timidly asking permission to write poetry – at night, so as not to disturb the household. She also needs his permission to contact magazines and editors willing to publish a few of her poems – anonymously of course. Perhaps difficult to understand to some in the audience, but this was of course reality at the time. In fact, Emily is lucky in having a father who grants permission and does not mind children showing a certain intelligence and independence – though not too much of course.

The film also beautifully illustrates what life was like for women. Emily’s mother probably loved someone else, who died too young. Emily and her sister remain spinsters. One of their closest friends is a feminist, but marries – though not for love. And there is brother Austin who towards the end of the film, shows society’s double standards and hypocrisy at its worst. By then, Emily is already ill and will soon die.

This is one of those slow-moving art-house films which demand quite something of their audiences. It contains many scenes, where not just the film’s main characters are forced to think and question believes, values, opinions, ideas. The audience is invited to do the same, though not all will.

What most impressed was the film’s depiction of stillness. It opens with silence. There is the scene of a quiet evening at home: only the clocks tick and oil lamps and candles provide feeble light. Perhaps now and again, someone will cut a page of a book – but this is all the noise, all the light, all the evening entertainment. When things become too oppressive, Emily is demanded to play a few hymns on the forte piano. How fortunate to have someone who can play and the family actually owning a musical instrument.

Such scenes make it a film to watch and experience. Especially for lovers of Emily’s poetry and those interested in 19th century literature. For these, the hints about for instance the Bronte sisters, acquire an extra depth. More so, if one is familiar not just with the furore surrounding their novels and outing, but with their poetry – especially by the other Emily.

This does not mean the film will only appeal to literature lovers. For a start, it was filmed at Amherst. Then, it is a splendid English costume drama. Reviewers quite rightly also point out it is a “mood” film. But it is also a drama full of witty conversations which regularly had me and the rest of the audience in stitches. Yet, as stated above, do not expect entertainment in the vein of “Gone with the Wind”. “A Quiet Passion” is a strong yet quiet film which suggests a lot about a quiet heroine with a passionate inner life.

“A Quiet Passion” premiered at the 2016 Berlin Filmfestival and can now be seen in European art house cinemas.
Directed and written by Terence Davies;
Emily Dickinson: played by Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon
Lavinia Dickinson: Jennifer Ehle
Austin Dickinson: Duncan Duff

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