A QUIET PASSION: The Interior Life of a Poet

The Emily Dickinson biopic moves at a slow burn.

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is among the canon of great American works, but fame didn’t come until after her death. A Quiet Passion places a lens on the poet’s 19th Century life: her relationships with family members, her illness, her decision to shut others out as she grew older. The film from director Terence Davies stars Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as the artist who made the most of a life hindered by the cult of domesticity.

Except for the school sequence at the opening, Dickinson is only shown in and around her house. Her family receives visitors and throws parties, so most of her social life is lived within the walls of her home. She walks to church with younger sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle, Pride & Prejudice) but we aren’t shown the service.

Such framing decisions in A Quiet Passion illustrate the insular life of women among her class. Besides the big strings in the score yearning for resolution, the movie is punctuated with house rumblings. During a discussion, a clock in another room chimes, or birds outside chirp. As Dickinson’s world becomes limited to her home, director Davies creates a claustrophobic feeling through set design and camera shots.

Emily confides to a dear friend, “I can’t imagine myself beyond my family.” She is drawn into intense friendships, and holds high expectations for those she loves…which leads to others disappointing her. Nixon fully inhabits the role of Dickinson, her eyes striking with anger or keen with excitement.

Her father (Keith Carradine, Nashville) allows her to compose poetry at night, so this becomes her dedicated time. As much as is possible, given her situation and the limiting gender roles of the era, she appreciates her individuality. “My soul is my own!” she argues with a fire-and-brimstone type preacher who visits her family.

Davies not only directed, but composed the screenplay, which contains a grim sense of humor and some memorable lines. Stanzas of Dickinson’s poetry are read between scene breaks. The story, using long shots, is in no rush to be told. The film doesn’t feel overlong until it nears the ending, when it becomes almost tedious. A Quiet Passion serves as an intimate portrait of this reclusive artist, but could have more impact with a slightly swifter pace.

A Quiet Passion opens today in Austin at Violet Crown Cinema and the Regal Arbor.

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