Mark Reviews Movies

A Quiet Passion


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Terence Davies

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Eric Loren

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 4/14/17 (limited); 5/19/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 18, 2017

After finishing their second semester of schooling, the students at the ladies seminary have a choice: Either they can accept salvation through the school's version of evangelical Christianity and continue their education, or they can go out into the world. The "saved" move to one side of the room, and those who can only "hope for salvation" move to the other.

One young woman remains, unmoving, in the middle of the room. What looks like an act of indecisiveness, though, is her choice. She does not know her relationship with God yet. She is neither denying the divinity nor accepting it. If it also looks like an act of defiance, it most certainly is, because she is definitely not accepting the school's interpretation of what a person's relationship with God should be. That is for her and her alone to discover.

The woman in question is a young Emily Dickinson, who soon leaves the seminary to return to her family home. There, she will live out the remainder of the 55 years she had in life. She would never marry. She would have no children. She lives her entire life in the middle. From what we see in the film, she went to school for a brief time and attended an opera with her family while visiting an aunt, but nearly every other scene in A Quiet Passion is set at the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. There is one notable exception: her funeral procession. Even that final journey is to a cemetery that is within walking distance from her home.

In the big picture, not much happened in the life of one of the most important and influential American poets. Writer/director Terence Davies is keenly aware of this fact. His camera remains mostly still throughout the film, and when it moves, it is with just perceptible subtlety. Emily's life is one of great stillness on the exterior, and that trait increases as she gets older. She becomes a recluse, wasting away in that house because the outside world offers nothing but pain and disappointment.

There are a few tragedies within the film, and within the context of her seclusion, it is the inevitability that life itself—whether lived in the wide world or within the confines of a single house—will bring pain and disappointment. She loses friends to marriage, which are losses that she sees as a kind of death, so almost through no conscious decision of her own, she stops having friendships. For Emily, marriage is a possible goal that becomes more unlikely as the years go by and as the men fail to live up to her expectations—either because of real or imagined faults.

She stays with her family, but there is only pain and disappointment to be had there, too. Parents die. Siblings betray the expectations one may have had of them.

As portrayed in the film, the conflicts of Emily's life are internal. The poet, played through most of the film by Cynthia Nixon (in a stunning performance of intelligence, wit, and emotional honesty), is wracked with personal and existential doubts, fears, and insecurities. She spends her life in pursuit of the answers to questions that are, rather contradictorily, both beyond her and completely within her ability to answer. They are matters of faith, of family, of love, and of work.

Some things, such as her constantly stalled career as a poet, are out of her control, since she lives in a time when the male-dominated establishment believes that the great written works can only be achieved by men. She has a few poems published—always to her disliking, on account of editorial changes to her unique punctuation. Most of them remain in her possession, and they would only be published after her death. Emily comments on the idea of posthumous fame at one point: It is only for people who were "not worthy of being remembered" while they were alive. The statement could be taken as either prophecy or self-critique. It is likely that it is a mournful combination of the two.

Other things, such as her religious faith and her various relationships with family and friends, are within her control to one degree or another. Her family—mainly her father Edward (Keith Carradine), a man who is stern in social matters but gentle in familial ones, and younger sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle)—is supportive of her writing. Vinnie is also Emily's best friend and one of the few people whom Emily is willing to listen to when it comes to critiques of the way she's conducting her life. Whether she takes that advice to heart is another matter.

Her elder brother Austin (Duncan Duff) goes on to live his own life, marrying and moving into the house next door with a woman named Susan (Jodhi May), who instantly admires Emily and gradually becomes like another sister. Emily's mother (played by Joanna Bacon) is herself a recluse. A cloud of depression hangs in front of her at all times. The mother barely leaves her room. She reveals to Emily that her role as a wife and mother is simultaneously the greatest joy of her life and the cause of her despair. What else could there have been for her?

A modern interpretation of Dickinson's life is that she likely suffered from the same sort of depression that, also likely, beset her mother. The film's Emily is offered a more romantic and more complex reading. She is a searcher of sorts, seeking out the truth of religious faith and of personal fulfillment.

Later on, Emily puts her conclusion of her relationship to God in this way: "He will know my struggle and be merciful, and if He does not exist, then my soul will eternally be free." It's a reversal of sorts on Pascal's Wager, which posits that the benefits of believing in a divine power outweigh the risks of not believing. For Emily, it is better to remain truly herself, because it is the only reward worth anything.

The ultimate tragedy of the film may be that there is no reward in either the spiritual or physical realm. The film ends with readings of Dickinson's poetry—a device that serves as transitions throughout the film—on the subject of death (There are plenty of works from which to choose, which brings us back to depression). There's a stark juxtaposition of the Dickinson who comes across as accepting of death in her poems and the reality of her final years, months, and moments of life.

Davies has crafted a literate and probing biography. A Quiet Passion is not about the events of a life. It is instead about the ideas of a woman who spent her life seeking a means of understanding the big questions, while communicating that understanding through poetry. This is a film that explores the internal and the eternal with equal amounts of insight and sensitivity.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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