Emily Dickinson: A Quiet Passion
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
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, because she had so little outer life to dramatize, but her inner life as it manifested itself in her connections with her family and friends is more than enough to propel a good story. The plot of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion concerns a fiercely independent woman’s quest for moral perfection and happiness in an imperfect world. Dickinson is an agoraphobe and is wary of company. When people visit she will talk to them only from the door of her upstairs bedroom.
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, always so intimate and rare, 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
Graphic by Ryan Sheffield, available here.
If you liked this little review, you might also enjoy my collection of essays about authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life.