Last night, on a whim I went to see Terence Davie’s indie film A Quiet Passion, about the life of Emily Dickinson at my local Sundance theater, and was completely blown away. I’d read a couple of reviews online, so I knew to expect witter banter, lyrical recitations of Dickinson’s poetry, and a look at Dickinson’s relationship with her family and religion. What I did not expect was how much I would feel watching it. I laughed my way through the first half and cried my way through the second. I haven’t experienced that kind of catharsis in a long time.
First of all, the film is hilarious. It capture the clever, irreverent charm of Emily Dickinson and her siblings in a way I’ve never seen translated to screen. The dialogue is masterfully written and superbly acted. Most of us familiar with Emily know her through her poetry, which has led to a perception of her as morose and somber. Her reputation as a recluse who never left her house in later years rounds out the picture of a sad, isolated woman who probably felt little joy and was likely decidedly dull. Yet, her letters reveal her as a highly intelligent and witty woman with a remarkable sense of humor and light about her that, once recognized, shines through in her poetry as well.
A Quiet Passion captures this delicate balance on screen, especially via Emily Dickinson’s relationships with her siblings, Vinnie and Austin and good friend Vryling Buffam (a name which, in her own words, “sounds like an anagram”). From their first appearances on screen (played by Emma Bell, Rose Williams, and Benjamin Wainwright) to their last (played by Cynthia Dixon, Jennifer Ehle, and Dustin Duff), Emily, Vinnie, and Austin Dickinson light up the screen. They’re ‘sophisticated’, intelligent, playful, and irreverent. They poke fun at the stuffy attitude of Puritan religion without dismissing the importance of faith and religion, just their society’s practice of it. Their father indulges them, values them even, and their mother keeps her peace and fights her own private battles.
The Dickinsons are a loving family, one full of life and joy. Yet, that does not mean they do not acknowledge life’s difficulties. One of the things I appreciated most about Davies’ film is the honesty with which he depicted the family’s physical, mental, and emotional struggles. Now, none of these may be ‘historically accurate’ in the strictest sense of the term, but as I watched, the truth of the experience shone through. Whether Emily Norcross Dickinson (Emily’s mother, played by Joanna Beacon) suffered from postpartum depression and clinical depression, we may never know. But the pathos of her struggle rings true. The scene where she explains her long battle with feeling a sense of longing and sadness at just the right time of day, when the sun hangs low, is suffused with tragedy.
Such scenes, while perhaps not ‘historical’, bring out the deep truth that pervades Davies’ film regarding love and loss, grief and bitterness. Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later life is given new meaning in his skilled hands. Her struggle against conforming to the outward expressions of piety within her religious culture may have been deep-seated, but the bitterness and sorrow we sometimes see in Dickinson’s poetry has a cause.
Davies’ Dickinson loved fiercely, enjoyed cleverness and wit voraciously, and suffered profound loss. She lived a life of inner turmoil, wishing to be free of constraint and equal to the status of men in her society, yet with resistance, sometimes even from those she loved most. She craved acknowledgement of her skill and talent, a word from the world that her poetic pursuits resonated, yet never received it in her lifetime.
Emily Dickinson lost a father and a mother in quick succession. Good friends married or moved away. Her brother had an affair that shattered her image of him. She invested all she had in her inner circle only to see many of them leave her one by one. Add to that her struggles with chronic pain (Bright’s disease, a form of kidney nephritis), and small wonder, she refused to leave the house. The world had become a place of grief and pain and sorrow. Whether factual to her life or not, this feels both true and relatable.
Davies’ lays out Dickinson’s approach to seeing life as a profound gift to be enjoyed while also perceiving the truly terrifying reality of death in the most powerful way. We feel the tension with her, the passion for life, the fear of the abyss, her depth of affection, her yearning. All these placed in such a delicate balance and given equal weight, both by Davies and by Cynthia Nixon, who, I may say, while an unusual choice, played Dickinson with such pathos I cannot imagine anyone else doing the poet justice.
Davies’ use of silence and cinematography allows the audience to feel the weight of Emily’s existential fear. Voiceover recitations of Dickinson’s poetry replace musical cues with such deftness that they become music, profoundly changing my approach to her body of work. We, the audience, don’t just perceive Emily’s quiet, yet strong emotional struggles, we feel them ourselves as we’re watching, thanks to Davies and Nixon.
The film also hinted that Emily Dickinson might not be entirely, well, straight. It’s a subtle thread I’d picked up on just reading the reviews. The emphasis put on her friendship with Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), led me to expect subtext there. And there was. Both Emiliy and Vryling seem to have an affection for each other that transcends the platonic, yet neither verbally acknowledges it. Emily’s despair over Vryling’s marriage and Vryling’s more pragmatic approach to it, however, speak volumes. Vryling’s wry humor applies even to her marriage, which she perceives of mostly as social necessity. She’s a woman, she must marry a man. And Emily must not cry for her, even on her wedding day.
Then, there’s a scene with Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and Emily Dickinson. Susan confesses that she does not find men appealing in a romantic or sexual way. She married Austin, Emily’s brother, because she believed it was expected of her. (Ahem, heteronormativity.) Still, she does her duty by him in the bedroom and is loyal. Emily responds to Susan’s honesty with sympathy, remarking that those who are denied a love, or rather, a “certain kind of love”, learn how to survive while starving.
And if that isn’t an admission that Davies’ perceives Dickinson as sapphic, I don’t know what is. Emily’s vehement defense of and identification with Susan when Austin has an affair fits into this pattern. As does Emily’s on screen draw toward beautiful women who sing beautiful music. I take back what I said earlier about sublte hints. A Quiet Passion isn’t all that subtle about it’s depiction of Dickinson as a queer woman.
All that to say, I loved the film. It felt both raw and honest in a way I never expected of a film about Emily Dickinson. Davies’ depiction of her existential terror, intelligence, wit, and way with words felt like the Emily Dickinson I met when I first read her poetry. He never dismissed her spirituality or faith, nor did he dismiss her acute sense of struggle in her religious life. Both her fear and wonder about the world were given equal weight. We got to see Emily Dickinson from the inside out. When accompanied by the near musical recitations of her poetry by Cynthia Nixon, the result is, quite frankly, breathtaking.
If you love Emily Dickinson, or just like well written, well acted period films, go see A Quiet Passion.