“A Quiet Passion” Is The First Great Surprise Of The Year

Strangely enough as someone who graduated with a degree in English and has to study classic American literature, I didn’t have much of an interest in the types of books I had to read. Yet I still wanted to go out and see the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion so I could take a sabbatical from studio tentpoles and support smaller indie gems that tend to get thrown under a bus during the summer season. Thank god I did because with A Quiet Passion, I have found a film that might not be for everyone but is still a thrill to watch with its bravura performances and distinctive filmmaking.

A Quiet Passion follows the life of author Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) from her younger years to adulthood when her poetic work would tend to go unnoticed and she would end up a recluse while maintaining close ties with her family. Especially her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). It also demonstrates how she had an independent mind, rebelliously willing to think for herself and unable to conform to the social norms of her time period.

The film rests almost entirely on the shoulders of Cynthia Nixon’s performance and she anchors it with absolute ease. She demonstrates Dickinson’s holistic nature and sly wit yet she is never afraid to show off her more hideous traits as well. How her self-flagellation got the best of her along with the feelings of captivity within her own home. I seriously hope that come awards season, Cynthia Nixon can make a dent in the Best Actress race. She is just that impressive. Equally impressive is the supporting cast including Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine who plays Emily’s father.

Catherine Bailey as Vryling.

But one actress worth mentioning that I don’t feel is getting enough credit is Catherine Bailey who plays Vinnie’s friend, Vryling Wilder Buffum. Bailey only has a sparse amount of screen time but when she is on screen, she brings a lot of spunk and charisma even when the film starts to lose momentum. She even has a key scene with Emily where she humorously displays her hypocritical nature, saying how she will fall victim to the societal expectations of marriage while peeling back the layers of Emily, encouraging her rebellious potential. Bailey gives a textbook supporting performance. One that leaves an impression while still fueling the arc of the main character.

As for the rest of the film itself, it is interesting how writer/director Terence Davies confines the film mostly to one setting in the Dickinson home. While it does create a rather stagey feel, to me it serves as a metaphor for how restrained women like Emily Dickinson were. Also, the fact that it feels like a play and results in heavy amounts of dialogue means that it won’t be everyone. There is plenty of witty dialogue to give the film some levity but with heavy dialogue along with a run time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, it’s a film that requires a lot of patience. Admittedly, there were times where I felt it was too long yet when thinking the film, it does have me thinking about what could be cut because if it was 90 minutes long, then it would probably have people wondering what went on between the sudden time jumps that would likely take place.

But in spite of the slow pacing, I would still suggest giving A Quiet Passion a chance. It has some great acting, especially from its leading star Cynthia Nixon along with moments of humor to counterbalance the heavy drama that is present throughout. Who knows, you might be as surprised by this as I was.

Grade: A-

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