Film Review: A Quiet Passion

Despite some claims, A Quiet Passion, a biographical study of Massachusetts-residing poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886), isn’t Liverpool-born writer/director Terence Davies’ first pic outside the UK, as purists tend to forget films like his successful take on Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth.

It might be his first effort to receive some bad press simply due to his central casting, though, and yet Cynthia Nixon (a.k.a. Miranda in TV’s Sex And The City) is very fine here, although Davies devotees are annoyed that he stooped to using a star and SATC fans will probably wonder why Miranda is talking funny.

The young Emily (at first played by Emma Bell) is depicted as a free-thinker and intellectual trouble-maker right from the word go, with her need to question everything encouraged by her father Edward (Keith Carradine taking a while to get comfortable), if not always her mother Emily (Joanna Bacon). Long dialogue scenes (a Davies trademark) start early as well and, most surprisingly, often prove very funny, as Dickinson has a cutting wit and isn’t afraid to use it against a local pastor, gentlemen callers and her snooty and pious Aunt Elizabeth (played with relish by Annette Badland as a sort of cruel cousin of Dawn French).

A clever cinematic device ages Emily and the family and Nixon steps in as our subject alongside brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and beloved sister Lavinia a.k.a. ‘Vinnie’ (Jennifer Ehle), and while Emily (and the film) almost never leaves the house, Davies keeps the drama compelling and the humour sharp. We also hear Nixon read Dickinson’s verse, and while the director and star have admitted that they have always found Emily’s poems slightly puzzling, they are nevertheless beautiful.

Much is made of how this poet was barely celebrated in her lifetime (and not just because she wasn’t a man), and yet this is less a study of feminism or gender politics and more a portrait of a gifted if extremely difficult woman and her not-always-quiet passion for her work. But not for the other kind of passion: oh no, such things would have proven quite the distraction.

Rated M. A Quiet Passion is in cinemas now

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