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Movie review: 'A Quiet Passion' is a test for audiences

A Quiet Passion; 126 min; Rated PG-13

What writer-director Terence Davies creates in “A Quiet Passion” is not a linear biopic, which would have been the definition of somnolence given that the subject is Emily Dickinson; rather, it’s a film that captures the tone and essence of what was, for many women who lived in the 19th century, a cloistered existence.

Although beautifully photographed, steeped in the light of candles and oil lamps, with many tight shots of the changing facial characteristics and expressions of Emily and her family, the film is a test of one’s endurance.

Consider the title: “A Quiet Passion.” Dickinson’s passion is a passion so quiet, so hidden — except in her poetry — that it is all but unintelligible.

Although the film opens with Emily, played by Cynthia Nixon, standing alone in the center of a spare room at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, being admonished for her rebellious spirit and refusing to yield to the school’s religiosity, this overt inclination to confront life later yields to an entirely different persona.

Gradually, as her life unfolds, the contradiction that defined her existence is revealed. Emily was not a fragile flower (a belief regarding womanhood that was perpetuated during the 19th century). In reality, she was bright, possessing a clever wit. But with every passing year, she grew more reclusive. But as she retreats into the shielding embrace of her family and the interior of her home and room, her poetry becomes more incisive, its imagery far more contemporary than her time. Her mind is avant-garde, forward-leaning, even courageous, her intelligence superbly honed, her tongue brittle and sharp. Yet still she retreats. Soon even the garden is abandoned as are streets, shops, or even a glimmer of Amherst’s city life.

There is something else about this film, this character study, that proves challenging for the audience, and that’s its pace. There is an early scene where the camera pans the living room doing a full 360. The family is seated quietly, each involved in various tasks (reading, needlepoint, soft discussion). It is indicative of life as it was led during 19th-century America, one that was bound by an ever-present restraint; in fact, so quiet and constrained are the Dickinsons as to be, for a modern audience, with its frenetic stride, almost jarring.

Emily’s existence becomes a study in stoicism, to the point of mania, all the while her interactions are tinged with a quality of bitterness and stridency while the underlying expectation is that a woman who can write poetry as she does, bold if not iconoclastic, stands on the cusp of breaking free. Stepping out, into life. Yet it is clear that while there is exuberance to be found just down the walkway, through a spectacular spring garden and its multiple rose-covered trellises, it’s a journey she wills herself not to take. Dressed always in white, she remains ever enigmatic.

She is not a character that it is easy to spend time with, and that feeling includes her family, which is bound in all ways by an iron decorum, best expressed by an admonishment of a straight-backed aunt who, upon leaving one afternoon, steps into her carriage and says, “… Remember, keep atheism at bay and watch the clock that ticks for us all.”

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died of Bright’s disease in 1886. She never married, and her poetry remained undiscovered until after her death.

The film encompasses 37 years of her life, and the last shot of the film, with voiceover of her poetry by Nixon, was of her open grave, an image that as filled with a certain melancholy that never left her, even in death.

She wrote,

Because I could not stop for death,

He kindly stopped for me.

The carriage held but just ourselves,

And immortality.