Resistance vibrates right from the outset in the beautiful and plangent movie A Quiet Passion. There is, in the central character, little by way of subordination to religious authority. Stubbornly, social convention is questioned and subverted. And, gender stereotyping opens a new war to be waged in the frontiers of the 19th-century milieu. In other words, the latest feature by Terence Davis is demanding to watch.
The biopic, subtitled This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me highlights about 40 years in the life of the American poet, Emily Dickinson. It starts in the latter part of the 1840s when teenage Emily (played by Emma Bell) graduates from an all-girls’ seminary and returns home to Amherst, Massachusetts where she (portrayed now by Cynthia Nixon) shall remain for the rest of her days.
Despite growing up in an ardently-Christian family in which the woman’s place is very much regarded to be in the home, Emily is resolutely opposed to allowing anybody, let alone God, compromise the “independence of [her] soul”. We soon come to know the poet will never marry even after the married pastor whom she adores leaves for another parish.
Alighting remorselessly for most of the film upon the interiors of the Dickinson estate with, subsequent to a youthful opera excursion, the absence of shops or any street, Davis trains the entire focus of his work on the depth of emotional range, Florian Hoffmeister’s lens capturing every tear brimming in the eye, a summery grin, or furrowed brow, as time manoeuvres itself into the narrative arc.
In one early scene, the camera pans from character to character in a slow clockwise motion, shadows from the fireplace long on faces reading by low lights, softly illuminating the mother’s melancholy (Joanna Bacon), before settling on Emily’s vicarious expression, the grandfather clock all the time ticktocking in the background that culminates in a resonant chime.
Retreating more and more into herself Emily becomes embittered when things around her begin to change: her father (Keith Carradine) dies, then her mother, and a close friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) who, in spite of strong near-feminist attitudes, gradually displays a willingness to conform, for the sake of harmony, and weds — all for which the writer churns with the same unforgiving grief.
It isn’t that, Davis shows us, Emily cannot love or does not want to love, only the tension between raising a family and autonomy seems in her mind insoluble. However much she longs for human affection — a dream-like sequence plays out her unseen desires — the barrier Emily erects about her blocks out suitors who find themselves scorched by caustic remarks.
The tenderest moment in the movie occurs when in trying to comfort Emily, her sister Vinnie (magnificent Jennifer Ehle) says, “In matters of the soul you are rigorous,” to which Emily replies, “[That] rigour is no substitute for happiness.”
If I have one regret while watching A Quiet Passion it is the inability to delve more deeply into the poetry that is voiced over as a kind of internal monologue, given how it requires rigorous analysis. There is a lot of tenacity and conflict present here, and rarely do they cause such inner tremors.