A Quiet Passion: Not the Movie About Emily Dickinson We Wanted. But Is It the One That We Needed?

The poetry of Emily Dickinson has rocked my world since I first encountered it as a shy, socially awkward and isolated pre-teen. Starting here:

There’s a certain Slant of light, 
 Winter Afternoons — 
 That oppresses, like the Heft 
 Of Cathedral Tunes –

What did the entirety of the poem mean? I was only twelve. I had no clue. I only knew, reading by myself in the school hallway at lunchtime that the words conveyed a haunting sense of melancholy that made my heart ache and soothed it tenderly at the same time. I only knew for sure that I was not alone in being alone.

In “A Quiet Passion” film-maker Terence Davies unflinchingly re-creates the stark realities and complex social milieu of nineteenth century America. He anchors his subjects firmly back in time. In the opening scene, a fierce, lace-capped school teacher demands that a young Emily (Emma Bell) stand on the left or right side of the classroom to prove her desire to be “saved” and her loyalty to Puritan Christian teachings. Later, Davies depicts the horrors of the Civil War; gruesome images of battlefields strewn with dead and dying bodies, the numbers of men killed in each battle superimposed on the screen, sometimes tens of thousands in one afternoon.

The director himself has acknowledged that there is a deliberately “staged” quality to the interactions of the characters. I will not mention how jarring it was to see Cynthia Nixon in the title role at first, because her performance turns out to be a tour de force. I will not say that the language feels stilted and awkward (Did people in the nineteenth century always talk to each other in clever riddles?) I will say instead that the dialogue gives the air of a play as much as a movie.

Even between father and daughter, brother and sister there’s a stifling formality, with rules that govern the smallest social interaction. The safe routines are only broken in small, temporary moments of rebellion. (I cheered inside, like any good feminist when Emily’s response to her father’s complaint about a dirty plate was to smash it on the floor and go back to eating dinner casually). Davies attempts to show the love between the members of the Dickinson household (they all rush to her side to rescue her from the Puritan school where she’s being “bullied and coerced”). Yet there’s also a sense of isolation and separation among each individual in an already isolated world.

The characters all suffer from this constant, hellish tension of self and socially imposed monitoring against the various Puritan “sins” of pride, lust, anger and just about any other human emotion. Emily’s father Edward (Keith Carradine), a lawyer with abolitionist tendencies is paternalistically indulgent with his children. He gives Emily permission to write at night in the hours between 3am and dawn “something a husband would never allow” as Dickinson says herself. The social order is breaking down however, and it falls on the shoulders of the male heads of household to prevent the “disintegration” of religious and moral values. In one scene Edward loses his temper, because Emily has “outrageously” refused to kneel for a patronizing pastor who insults her father in their own home.

A camera pans the inside of the Dickinson household at certain points in the movie. The color palette is muted yellows and somber greens. The director’s gaze moves slowly along on the mantelpiece, lingering on candelabras and no doubt faithfully reproduced household knick-knacks. There’s a sense of home being a place of the familiar and comfortable, and yet also oppressively inescapable as a prison. In one scene as the family spends an evening together, what begins as companionable quiet of people reading and contemplating, roars towards a deafening silence and ends with Emily’s aging mother sobbing over the death of a young man with a “beautiful voice” who died many years ago. The whole thing has a depressing, funereal quality that seems all out of proportion than one might expect from a quiet night at home.

To be honest, there are few reprieves from the bleakness of Davies’ vision. The movie might equally be titled “A Quiet Suffering” as we move relentlessly through the death of Emily’s father, then her mother (who according to this portrayal, lived most of her life in an awful fog of post-partum depression). The characters cry during almost every interaction. Then of course there is Emily’s own suffering from incurable “Wright’s disease”, a liver disorder that causes her tremendous pain, and also violent, uncontrollable shaking fits. It’s painful to watch, particularly since she selflessly hides the illness to the best of her ability, adding another layer to her unhappiness.

The most sympathetic character in the movie is probably Emily’s sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), her face upturned towards us with a constant, friendly smile. The simplicity of her nature (and perhaps the reason she continues to thrive as Emily struggles) is revealed when she admits that she too has “had bad thoughts” of her brother’s lover being killed in a hot air balloon accident. Then there’s Emily’s relationship with her “best friend”. At one point Emily declares her that Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) “could never seem smug!” In fact this supposed “proto-feminist” comes off as exactly that. Her constant, “clever” quips and barbed word-play, her refusal to drop her emotional armor and show any genuine vulnerability make her insufferable. We can’t help wondering if this was the standard for “close” friendships in that era. Although Dickinson supposedly dotes on this person, there’s little indication of much true warmth or intimacy between the two. Even though Emily is devastated to lose her to marriage, Vryling instructs coldly on the day of her wedding “no tears”, and Emily complies without much difficulty.

As time progresses, Emily’s character degenerates from an admittedly quirky, yet self-assured young lady into an older woman, wracked with doubts about her looks and desirability, denied the slightest approval for her literary work even by her own brother. She’s betrayed in a scathing article against female writers by the very man who published her poetry. She’s forever denied “the kind of love” (in other words, a husband and family) that other women in her circle are blessed with. Her longing for male love and the resultant sexual frustration are suggested as the seed of her increasing bitterness. She is the most unkind, intolerant and judgmental when her brother has an affair, even though at least one of the loves in her life was a married man. She conducts brusque conversations with “kind men” who come to visit with her from her bedroom door the top of the stairs (this is a true biographical fact, apparently). She tells Vinnie she does this because she’s so deeply afraid of intimacy. She basically goes full “Bertha” on us (Jane Eyre, people) and begins wearing an all white gown as her go-to outfit. This makes her appear even more unhinged. She dies in agony, but to be fair has her beloved sister and brother by her side. Even without a husband, she wasn’t alone in being alone.

I like to imagine that Terence Davies is asking those of us who love Emily Dickinson as a feminist icon to mature in our understanding in the realities of her life. He’s asking us to abandon sentimental ideas, and face the truth of how it would have been to live under the harsh gender inequality she suffered. He suggests seeing her as a woman whose sensitive psyche was deeply wounded due to the terrible constraints placed upon her by the social context of the times. If this is true, it’s the sad psychological equivalent of the misshapen nature of a Chinese woman’s foot after binding. That’s a powerful statement.
 I think we have to openly admit the huge obstacle that Terence Davies was up against when he chose to take on this passion project: how completely invested many women are in their personal literary heroines. I came looking to find an image of Emily Dickinson I had formed in my younger years from reading her letters. To me she has always seemed a woman of breathless, boundless enthusiasm for life, for the small charms of home; a sensitive woman who routinely fell passionately (and platonically) in love with the few people that she allowed into her heart, whether male or female. She was a woman whose “small” poems were delicately crafted as nesting boxes, each word and each punctuation mark imbued with meaning. I wanted to see a movie that showed how creativity can help transform and transcend even the smallest, most restricted life. What the movie offers is a much more problematized version of the poet’s personality and life.

One thing Davies didn’t do was silence her. Cynthia Nixon reads Dickinson’s poetry with great expression throughout the movie and for that I’m grateful.

Perhaps it was not the Emily Dickinson we wanted, but the one we need to remember how far we’ve come … and to remind us to keep fighting because we still have such a long way to go.