Film Review: “A Quiet Passion” — A Personal View of Emily Dickinson

Cynthia Nixon is a great Emily Dickinson, so deeply angry, so heartbreaking in her fool’s life of stoic suffering.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA and the West Newton Cinema.

Nixon as Emily Dickinson in "A Quite Passion."

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in “A Quite Passion.”

By Gerald Peary

I’ve taken, of course, the house tour in Amherst, and I adore some of her marvelous poems. But having never read a biography of Emily Dickinson, I’m hardly the one to come at Terence Davies’s bio-pic, A Quiet Passion, and note with breezy erudition what’s a stretch, and what’s patently untrue. It’s only by peeking at film reviews by educated Dickinsonians did I have confirmed what I strongly suspected: Davies makes things up.

For example, Emily’s married brother, Austin Dickinson (Duncan Duff) did have a long affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, who later, as a literary editor, would bring Dickinson’s unknown poetry to the public. But Emily never witnessed Austin in the parlor smooching with Mabel. That’s a scene in his movie, as Davies needed to supply a dramatic reason for his controlled, tightly wound heroine (Cynthia Nixon) to explode with rage and sexual frustration.

And Emily was never bosom pals with a fluffy woman named Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who gads about spouting pithy epigrams which seem like borrowings from Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest. For his movie, Davies needed a female confidante, someone who would loosen up Emily’s New England up-tightness, and also show the serious poet that gals can have fun too. And that they can look at men with desire.

In actuality? I defer to Anthony Lane in The New Yorker: “A real woman named Vryling Buffam appears in a footnote in Richard B. Sewall’s Emily Dickinson biography as a friend of her sister Lavinia.”

Terence Davies is a liar, but so what? The Bard fibbed about Richard II and Richard III, and yet! The way to appreciate A Quiet Passion is to see it as Davies’s purposefully ahistoric reading of Emily Dickinson, but a meaningful personal reading. In key ways, he deeply relates to her. Like Dickinson, Davies came from a large family in Great Britain, a family he has looked at with great nostalgia in his autobiographical films. Davies on Dickinson: “The one thing she wanted was for the family to stay forever and to be happy ever after but that can’t happen.”

In line with Dickinson, Davies claims to lead the most uneventful life. “Boring” is his word to describe it. And Davies can relate to Dickinson writing all those genius poems in anonymity, only six of them published (barely) while she was alive. Davies: “For ten years, people weren’t interested in my work, they weren’t interested at all…. [I}t is a horrible feeling. It’s like I poured my life into my work and what for?… For three people and a dog to see my films.”

OK, A Quiet Passion.

Our first views of Emily are as a young woman, and not home in Amherst at all. First, she’s a disobedient student at Mt. Holyoke, denying the imposed religiosity of the place, then she’s having a good old time in Boston, attending a concert with her family. Also, she’s kind of cute, as played by actress, Emma Bell. If this were the 21st century, this Emily would be on the way to an enthralling life with countless possibilities. Lovers and a career. The Iowa Writers Workshop? But this is the pre-Civil War 19th century, and there’s no place for women to go.

Before our eyes during a long-exposure photographic shoot, youthful Emma morphs into an almost middle-aged Cynthia Nixon rendition of Emily. She’s still possessed of spirit and humor and a certain attraction but she’s on the way toward spinsterhood. This Emily lives with her family in Amherst, and the trips to Boston are over. But she’s not yet a recluse. This Emily takes walks outside of the gates of her home.

As A Quiet Passion moves along, Emily becomes older and bitterer. And a homebody. She gets giddy over the new pastor in town, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she lets read some of her poetry and loves it. But he’s married and moves away to California. That’s it for romance. Emily decides she’s fatally unattractive, and all her emotional attention goes to her family: her brother, her sweet-tempered sister Vinnie (a charming Susan Ehle), and her parents.

The movie gets sadder and sadder. Emily is now an agoraphobe and recluse.

Her mother (Joanna Bacon), a depressive, cries over a 19-year-old boy she once loved, who died so young. (Did Davies lift this from James Joyce’s The Dead?) Mrs. Dickinson never leaves the upstairs of the house. And then, as the years pass, Emily also stays upstairs, peering outside by lifting her curtains. She has become the Madwoman in the Attic. And then there is the death of her father, the death of her mother. A movie filled with open caskets.

How does Emily become a writer? A poet of transcendent talent? Davies doesn’t even venture to explain. The poems, beautifully read by Nixon, just float onto the soundtrack at various moments in the movie, elegant and mysterious. A couple of times, Emily says them aloud in character: “I am Nobody/Who are You?” whispered to a baby she is holding in her arms. The inspiration for her writings? Emily expresses her admiration for George Eliot and the Brontes, and her disdain for the king of 19th century American poetry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At times, Terence Davies pushes his current-day sexual consciousness a little too much. Would Emily and her brother really have a heated discussion about “gender”? Would Emily’s new sister-in-law (an intense Jodhi May) confess out loud her coolness to her husband’s touch and practically admit her lesbianism? I assume that’s an invention of the openly gay filmmaker.

Finally, it’s time for Emily herself to leave this earth. Davies had countless choices of poems for the bereavement, from an author obsessed with death. I guess he decided against, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Too creepy and cynical. The rose for Emily is Dickinson’s masterly “Because I could not stop for death/It kindly stopped for me,” intoned as she leaves her home for the first time in so so many years, but in a casket.

Cynthia Nixon is a great Emily, so deeply angry, so heartbreaking in her fool’s life of stoic suffering. The other splendid performance is a triumph of unorthodox casting: 1970s hippy actor Keith Carradine as Emily’s stern patriarchal father. (Davies says in an interview that he asked his ensemble to watch William Wyler’s Hollywood classic, The Heiress. Carradine is paying fine tribute to Ralph Richardson’s stony, unbending father in that 1949 film adapatation of Henry James’s Washington Square.)

Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. Charles Merzbacher on April 26, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    This is an example of narcissistic filmmaking. (I realize I am using a term that is rapidly being drained of meaning: in the past century, everyone was “neurotic;” now everyone is “narcissistic.”) As you intimate, this isn’t a portrait of Dickinson; it’s a self-portrait of Davies. Introducing the film at the HFA, Davies turned almost every question about Dickinson into a rumination on himself. The agonizing death scenes are inspired by Davies memories of his father’s suffering; the dialog is a pastiche of favorite films of Davies’ youth; the characters exist and do things because Davies finds them amusing. Da noive! What’s especially odd is that Davies forgoes the exploration of all sorts of genuinely intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s life in favor of a lot of invented hooey. Although there are some beautiful images and Nixon’s performance is heartfelt, A Quiet Passion does only one thing perfectly: it is the quintessential parody of the earnest art film. Even SNL could not improve upon the title.

  2. Gerald Peary on April 27, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Half full, half empty. We both agree that a lot of this movie is really about the filmmaker. That’s either narcissism or an example of extremely subjective cinema. When Flaubert said, “Emma Bovary, c’est moi!” or something like that. was he being an impossible narcissist? I don’t think so.

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