The Mystery Within 

A Quiet Passion 

Stars: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Joanna Bacon, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Annette Badland, Marieke Bresseleers and Eric Loren
Director/Scriptwriter: Terence Davies
Cinematographer: Florian Hoffmeister
Music Box/Soda Films
Rating: PG 13 for themed material and war photographs
Running Length: 126 minutes 

*Emily Dickinson is an American poet of the 19th century whose work is studied today and will continue to be studied. Brevity, wit and insight of life were written by this lady who did her best work beginning at 3 a.m. According to traditions of that time, and living in her father’s house, she had to ask permission to write poetry at that time of morning. Women were under the rule of men then, but every once in awhile there came along someone with spirit and not afraid to speak her mind. Yes, Emily (played by Cynthia Nixon) was one of them and she did pay for this by some social rejection. Emily lived in Amherst, Mass. 

The film begins at Emily’s youth and attending a school for girls, at which she was unhappy and did not follow the religious tone of that time. She questioned everything and that was not allowed. Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon)  and father (Keith Carradine) were better-than-average parents of the time in allowing flexibility in the household. Emily’s close friends were her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and their sister-in-law, Susan (Jodhi May) married to their brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), a lawyer. The household seemed above average in income with a larger home and garden. Life consisted of looking for a husband (not Emily), settling down to manage one’s own household, inviting guests to meals or teas, which bored Emily. Her poetry was her passion and one place she could express herself without constraint, though one time, she found out an editor had redone her poems to “make them readable.” After the death of parents, Emily became a recluse, wearing only white dresses and staying within the house most of the time. Actually, she suffered from Bright’s Disease (kidney failure) and was in pain. 

Cynthia Nixon is an effective Emily, showing just enough emotion to get her into trouble sometimes, but you would love to have seen her throw a vase at someone just to blow off steam. She seemed drawn to the unattainable men, watching them from afar.  Joanna Bacon, as her mother, has a quiet moment, though filled with emotion, as she recounts what it is like to be “sad” (which we would called depression today.)  The arguments between Emily and her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff) were fiery and just what siblings have always done--peck away at each other, not knowing when to stop. Eric Loren (Reverend Wadsworth) and Simone Milsdochter (Mrs. Wadsworth), though in the film a short time, give the audience a look at a married couple with nothing in common. Leaves the audience to wonder, “how in the world did they get together?”

The actors show their emotions through words rather than the face, as people went on with their lives, burying emotion somewhere inside their minds. Emily Dickinson chose to express herself through words, and those she hid in her house. The few that were published brought recognition, but not the fame she quietly wanted. That came years and years later. 

The script shows us life at Emily’s time, which included the Civil War, young men wanting to enlist, and just how far one could go with expressing one’s opinion about anything.  There were repercussions. There is no listed composer for the film, only permission to use various pieces of music that are artfully woven throughout. Cinematography is well done, and with the music, and  set design,  “A Quiet Passion” looks like a photo album throughout. 

A film about a poet takes a special touch from a director, and here, Terence Davies got it right. The actors inhabit the emotional tone of that time period. Cynthia Nixon’s “Emily Dickinson” has spirit at the right moment, and soul-searching at the next. Here is a woman with opinions---not to be verbally expressed---and born at the wrong time.  As it is, we have her poetry, but not a photo at a rally for women’s rights. Emily would have been great in the 20th century.  

*Emily Dickinson poems are recited in various scenes of the film. 


Copyright 2017 Marie Asner