A Quiet Passion, a film by Terence Davies, charts the life of the American poet, Emily Dickinson, born into a wealthy Massachusetts family in 1830. The film begins with perhaps her first real rebellion when, at school, she refuses to dedicate her life to God. She returns thankfully to her family in Amherst and for the rest of rather short life (she died, painfully, at the age of 56), she never really leaves it. A Quiet Passion portrays the stultifying atmosphere that women in those days used to live in, the restrictions on this passionate, talented woman and how little scope life gives her to breathe. Her poetry must have come from her inner self as she had so little experience to draw on.
Having read The Lovers of Amherst by William Nicholson I was expecting a very different film. In this book, Emily's brother embarks on an affair which is condoned, even supported, by Emily. She experiences love through her brother's passion. The film contrasts greatly. The passion here is the poetry in Emily's soul; what inspires her to write poetry in the teeth of indifference and condescension. Her father helps her to get published but does not value her poetry. He allows her to read such 'unacceptable' authors as the Bronte sisters and George Eliot but he dictates the way she lives. Her rebellions are quite small: she gets up to write in the small hours of the morning (but she has to seek permission to do this); she refuses to kneel when asked to by the pastor; she smashes a plate when her father complains it is dirty. Mostly though, she must conform and tolerate the many little humiliations that a woman in that period had to endure.
Cynthia Nixon plays the mature Emily Dickinson with a luminosity and inner strength that leaps off the screen. She portrays the conflicts that torment Emily – familial obedience struggle against freedom from restrictions; the desire and yet the fear to love and be loved. Jennifer Ehle plays her adoring sister Vinnie who tries to ease her life; Keith Carradine her loving but tyrannical father. However, the film does revolve round the central character and Cynthia Nixon is totally convincing as this conflicted poet: her longing to be a free-thinking woman like her friend Vryling Buffam (pertly played by Catherine Bailey) and yet her unwillingness to give up her privacy; her defiance in the face of her father and yet her total devastation when he (and then her mother) dies. The only person she falls for is a married man of God (unrequited) and yet she is vitriolic in her condemnation of her brother's infidelity (Duncan Duff). As she gets older her tongue becomes more caustic and she pushes away those who admire her – it's almost as if she wants to make herself unlovable. Yet she is much loved and much missed (and indeed becomes famous) after her death, something she always dreaded.
What the film also portrays admirably is the claustrophobic atmosphere of her life: the gloomy rooms with heavy drapes, the restricted walks in the garden or to church. The film uses very little music - the drama comes in the silence itself and the slow, dark pace of her life is reflected in the pace of the film. Music, therefore, when it is used, has great dramatic effect. And her own words, portraying her attitude to death, to love. She wrote so much beauty from her narrow life.
Some people will find this film too slow and too long: for me the pace and length were necessary to demonstrate the strictures of her life. I thought I knew something about Emily Dickinson – I understand much more now.
The Heart asks Pleasure -- first --
And then -- Excuse from Pain --
And then -- those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering --
And then -- to go to sleep --
And then -- if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die --
Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886