Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks (Part of coverage of the New York International Film Festival)
It’s a dreadful thing to write a bad review about a film that you desperately wanted to like. I find myself in this position with A Quiet Passion, the latest film from Terrence Davies that attempts to tell the biography of Emily Dickinson and manages little but mannered, superficial passion.
A Quiet Passion opens with the young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) singled out at Mount Holyoke for her lack of religious conviction. She leaves school and returns home to Amherst in the company of her father (Keith Carradine), brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright), and younger sister Vinnie (Rose Williams), where she dedicates her life to being mannered and passionate and writing at three o’clock in the morning. Transforming into Cynthia Nixon in her older years, Emily’s life goes through heartache and rebellion as she struggles for a place as an impassioned and increasingly embittered woman in the midst of 19th Century Massachusetts.
The problems of A Quiet Passion are hinted at from the very beginning. The dialogue is stilted, over-theatrical, as though the actors are in a filmed staging of the story. And little changes with the aging of the cast into better actors – they are still the same static, mannered cookie cutters they were at the beginning of the film. With such a remarkable cast – including Keith Carradine and Jennifer Ehle – one would imagine that A Quiet Passion might actually overcome its rather play-like opening to achieve something like depth. The stage-like elements might have worked if the film made something of them, but one gets the impression that it’s a superficial conceit and not a particularly grounded artistic choice.
A Quiet Passion’s central themes, of spiritual seeking, of the place of women in the social and literary worlds, of passion thwarted or turned to bitterness – these are all fascinating topics, ones that are hinted at as part of the larger picture. Yet, nothing ever comes of them. The spiritual dimension of Dickinson’s struggle lacks any degree of depth, as the film fails to depict any sort of complex understanding of 19th Century spirituality or religiosity. Dickinson’s struggle with the life of the soul and her equal doubts about God and religion, her rejection and rebellion against the Puritanical nature of her church, is depicted superficially, yet never examined. The simple sight of her refusing to kneel in prayer with an overbearing minister is supposed to be enough to exhibit her internal struggle.
So much in A Quiet Passion is superficial and theatrical that when real emotion does come through, it feels like too little, too late. Emily Dickinson’s life presents a curious problem for any film, for it is singularly un-cinematic. Her life is one of interiority, of internal struggle. Cynthia Nixon attempts to find depth as the elder Emily, but her emotional tenor is all over the place – one minute she’s bursting into tears over her brother’s infidelity, the next speaking in stilted non-sequiturs to her best friend. Her struggles with physical, emotional, and spiritual pain and isolation are confused and confusing, without character trajectory. Her father’s death apparently fuels her depression and drives her to seek separation in her room, but because the passion of the film is so unremarkable, so all over the place, it’s hard to get a sense of how Emily has altered over time, from joyful, questing young woman to an embittered poet.
A Quiet Passion seems to want to be more than a biopic – to elucidate the inner life of one of America’s premier female poets, relatively unknown in her own time, whose life and death have been so shrouded over with mysterious pity. But we see little of Emily’s real connection to her poetry or her ability to pour out her struggles and her fears and her passions into often short, powerful bursts of poetic expression. Pretty images and pithy statements stand in for emotional depth; the reading of Dickinson’s poetry in voice-over acts as the only real connection between the film and any depiction of artistic endeavor. Dickinson remains an unknown woman, a figure on a stage. She deserves far better than this.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)