A Quiet Passion


Writer/Director Terence Davies

Cynthia Nixon gives a vibrant performance as poet Emily Dickinson in this dramatic imagining of the poet’s life by Mr. Davies. The screenplay is based on the exhaustive research Davies did and then ‘forgot about’ to write his interpretation of the poet’s life from teenager leaving Mount Holyoke Seminary to her death at age 56. It’s a sumptuous feast with excellent Production Design, Set Decoration, Costuming, and Cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister.

Ms. Nixon plays Dickinson as a witty, pre-feminist and willful woman who is tortured by her expectations about life, love and spirituality, and finds outlet in her writing. Davies surrounds Nixon with a fine cast, most notably Jennifer Ehle as sister Vinnie, and Keith Carradine as her father. Catherine Bailey as Vryling Buffam, an invented character (at least as Davies writes her), is the mouthpiece for the wittiest and sharpest dialog in the film as she asserts her opinions and would be an equal match for Oscar Wilde. Her character almost steals the film.

There is some interesting visual technique throughout the film, most notable the use of a slow 360 degree pan, a sequence of slow dissolves indicating the passage of years, showing each of the main character’s photographic portraits morphing from the image of the younger actor to the older one. The ‘looming man’ sequence is the film’s most striking visual feature, almost playing like a slow cut music video, and was shot at 48 fps. It is both beautiful to see as we hear the Dickinson poem narrated by Nixon, and simultaneously haunting and menacing in its depiction of a dream sequence/vision.

Davies has written a good screenplay, well acted by the cast and realized by the creative departments. I’m left with a better sense of Dickinson’s poetry and the life which may have driven her to write such eloquent words. The pace dragged just a bit and some seemingly superfluous scenes could have been cut, otherwise this would have my highest marks. A strong Should See.

Relatable Reviews

  • A.O. Scott in the NY Times give it very high marks. “An admirer can be forgiven for approaching “A Quiet Passion,” Terence Davies’s new movie about Dickinson’s life, with trepidation. The literalness of film and the creaky conventions of the biopic threaten to dissolve that strangeness, to domesticate genius into likable quirkiness. But Mr. Davies, whose work often blends public history and private memory, possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made her tick.”