A Quiet Passion: Celebrating Emily Dickinson

June 23, 2017

A Quiet Passion

Rating: 3.5 / 5


Emily Dickinson is one of 19th century America’s best poets, and director Terence Davies pays tribute to her with his loving biopic of Dickinson’s life, A Quiet Passion.

Casting this feisty, self-centred and brilliant female intellect could be a challenge, but US TV star Cynthia Nixon is an ideal choice. She is a fine actor, and brings the character of Emily Dickinson to the screen perfectly. It is certainly a triumph of interpretation and nuance—by the end of A Quiet Passion we know Emily intimately in all her moods, and have been exposed to many of her poems, as the soundtrack includes many expert narrations by Nixon.

My only quibble with Nixon’s performance is her depiction of Emily as a young woman. While Emma Bell (of cult TV show The Walking Dead) plays the teenage Emily, Nixon goes on to portray her until her death at 56. While she looks credible as a woman in her 50s, her makeup ages her in the earlier scenes, making her characterisation less believable. However, this is a minor point and doesn’t detract from Nixon’s bravura performance. 

Davies is a consummate filmmaker in that he not only directs, but also writes the script as well. This means that, at times, he tends to get too close to his subject. The film is text-heavy, and is so faithful to its story that it strays into moments of tedium. Every scene is taken very seriously, which tends to weigh down the script and have the viewer wish for a faster pace.

The film is helped by its moments of humour. Its strongest features are the excellent performances by the actors in authentic locations. The film was shot in Belgium and in the Dickinson Massachusetts hometown of Amherst, where the team filmed at the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead.

As Emily’s stern but kindly patriarchal father, Keith Carradine gives an effective performance. Emily’s sweet-natured peacemaker sister Vinnie is a superb portrayal from Jennifer Ehle—Elizabeth in the BBC series Pride and Prejudice.

Catherine Bailey is mischievous as Emily’s opinionated friend, Vryling Buffam. Scottish actor Duncan Duff is impressive as Emily’s brother Austin, with whom she has some rip-roaring rows and, as Austin’s wife Susan, Jodhi May is a sweet foil to the feistiness of the Dickinson family.

Certainly, A Quiet Passion celebrates this remarkable 19th century literary talent, and Dickinson aficionados will adore it. But for the general public, it may seem a rather drawn-out 125 minutes. 

Highlight: Cynthia Nixon’s characterisation as Emily
Red flag: graphic scenes of illness


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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