"A Quiet Passion" Misses the Mark
“A Quiet Passion,” directed by Terence Davies, chronicles the life of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Starring Cynthia Nixon (Dickinson), Davies’ film is austere, stark, and as oppressive as the time our protagonist lived in.
The nearly complete absence of music in the film was replaced by Nixon narrating scenes with Dickinson’s poetry. If used sparingly, this effect could have punctuated emotional beats powerfully. Instead, the tactic was far over-used and resulted in mental fatigue for the audience. By the half-way mark, the viewer is tempted to tune out the drone of recited verse entirely, rendering the inherent power of Dickinson’s verse moot. This narration tactic was likely used so often in an attempt to illustrate what was going on in the heart and mind of Dickinson, but here is where Davies breaks the cardinal rule of cinema: we were told and not shown.
The sharp wit and burning heart so alive in the work of Dickinson should have been apparent in her onscreen persona. While Nixon’s performance did not lack emotion, it was without any perceivable authentic depth, coming off as a rather shallow characterization of such a unique person. We can read Dickinson’s poems ourselves, but to witness the great poet brought to life before our eyes is why we bought the ticket, and sadly, the film does not deliver.
Though Nixon worked her way around the difficult vocabulary and phraseology of the day like a master, the ultimate fault in her performance was not in her approach, but the script she had to work with. While at times very witty, it was full of on-the-nose proclamations, a complete lack of narrative, and flimsy characterizations of nearly every role portrayed in the film. In spite of this, Nixon gives it her all, exhibiting some intense scenes that display a razor sharp inner grief, self-loathing, and longing for acceptance.
There were many opportunities to do Ms. Dickinson’s life justice and all of them were missed by Davies. The close relationships the real life Dickinson maintained largely through correspondence with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert and the clergyman Charles Wadsworth were glossed over in such a way as to render Nixon’s portrayal of heartbreak and angst over their departures entirely unwarranted. The result was the perception of what was intended to be a deeply feeling and passionate woman reduced to an unsympathetic character who is prone to unnecessary displays of histrionics. We, the audience, were never given a chance to care for these people who shared only a scene or two with Nixon, so we cannot grieve their loss with our protagonist. We can only sit in embarrassment as we witness a grief we do not understand, further alienating us from the intended emotional impact of the story.
If one thing was done well, it was how thoroughly the utter sense of hopeless desolation permeated the atmosphere of the entire picture. Every character, from Dickinson's overbearing father (Keith Carradine), to her depressed mother (Joanna Bacon), to her outwardly dutiful siblings (Duncan Duff and Jennifer Ehle show signs of the deepest unhappiness caused by their unspoken and unfulfilled desires. The long, slow shots of the Dickinson family in their home brought the absence of music in to sharp relief, causing their home to feel more like a tomb filled with the living dead. The oppressive life these characters led culminated at times in to verbal spats among themselves, but otherwise remained tightly under wraps, their eyes showing the desperate panic of those being buried alive by their own duty to conformity. For those not so willing to conform, those like Emily, the violence of the silence brought an unhappy end to an unhappy life and a desk full of hand-sewn books of poetry that would not break their silence until death had allowed the tormented soul of their author to fly free at last.
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