Emily Dickinson: A Quiet Passion

You wouldn’t think much of a movie could be made about someone like Emily Dickinson, who ended up as more-or-less an agoraphobe, but her inner life as it manifested itself in her connections with her family and friends propels the narrative along. The plot of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion concerns a fiercely independent woman’s quest for moral perfection and happiness in an imperfect world.


The movie portrays nineteenth-century New England claustrophobia in agonizing detail: Emily, brilliantly played by Cynthia Nixon, has a few extremely close, possibly too close, relationships with her family, friends and minister, mostly without physical affection. Every time she loses someone to death, relocation or marriage, a little chunk is pulled from her heart. Eventually she retreats to her house and won’t even see visitors, requiring that they stay at the bottom of the stairs while she talks to them from the doorway of her room.

The pace and dialogue are very stylized. They are not “naturalistic” in the way we expect movies to be today. Characters speak as if they’re writing, very formally and with paradoxical wit, something like Oscar Wilde, but without the froth. Some would find the pace boring, but Stef and I got into it after a few minutes. The photography was very good.

One thing that struck me was the use of music. There was of course no recorded music in the middle of the nineteenth century, so music was a glimpse of heaven. Characters were beguiled by it. The soundtrack was largely mute, but there was one sequence in which Dickinson is having some sort of ecstatic vision that is accompanied by an angelic voice that shades into a clarinet solo.

There were a lot of voiceover readings of Dickinson’s poems, all of which fitted the context of the story.

I very much do not recommend this film to everyone, but if you’re deeply curious about the inner life of a sensitive person of a certain time and place, this movie might be for you. Trailer for A Quiet Passion

Thus speaks a spirit not broken.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life

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