A Quiet Passion

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

A Quiet Passion
"Davies looks at questions of the soul, family, war, creativity and how to be true to yourself - all in stunningly beautiful images."

Terence Davis, who catches the light of Amherst, Massachusetts while shooting in Belgium with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (The Deep Blue Sea), finds the soul in a flower, and examines what it means for women to be "doomed to be decorous" in the 19th century. He, and his subject Emily Dickinson as well, thought about the difference between wit and wisdom. In A Quiet Passion there is plenty of both. Wit can help cross smaller obstacles, not the big ones.

Davies looks at questions of the soul, family, war, creativity and how to be true to yourself - all in stunningly beautiful images. We first encounter young Emily (Emma Bell) at Episcopalian boarding school where she realises that easy salvation isn't hers to even wish for. Her loving family, sans the perennially under-the-weather mother (Joanna Bacon) come to take her home to Amherst to everybody's delight.

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Time passes and Davies, in a trick so simple and playful and far-reaching, ages the portraits the family members have taken of themselves.

Cynthia Nixon is a wonderful, knowing, doubting, twinkling Emily. Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, her perfect match in loving banter and bitter argument. Brother Austin (Duncan Duff), when he marries Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) gives them another sister. The female bonding comes across as effortless and their wit has lightning speed.

Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) lashes witticisms as fast as a whip, while she and Emily become even faster friends. When she suspects that hell is probably even duller than heaven, she might be on to something. "My soul is my own," says Emily and her poetry is written, after asking permission from her father, by night.

Although some of her poetry was published in the Springfield Republican, Dickinson's genius was never acknowledged during her lifetime. The film, which is also written by Davies, does sprinkle in the painful, casual insults, like salt on ripe fruit. "Sometimes you are as ugly as your poetry" coming from a family member hurts more than a publisher calling her verse, "childish like a nursery rhyme".

The importance of family ties finds its perfect visual equivalent in a slow 360 degree pan in a drawing room at night, moving from Emily to her Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) to objects and flowers on the table, to her father, her siblings, her mother, a lamp, a window, the fireplace, more flowers, and back to Emily crying. Never again will a bond like this exist.

Despite attempts, never will it go full circle again. Scenes such as this go far beyond the household depicted and challenge the audience to think back at that perfect, probably unrecognised moment of bonding in their own families. Costume designer Catherine Marchand lets rips show in the lace jabot and buttons remain undone. The clothes are lived-in, not costume.

"This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me, -- " starts one of her poems. Davies wants to do right by her and "Judge tenderly" of her. "Oh, Vinnie, why has the world become so ugly?" Emily asks. Davies clearly doesn't want us to limit this comment to 19th century Massachusetts.

"Let's not be anything today except superficial," is a suggestion that doesn't go very far with Emily Dickinson, as much as she tries in A Quiet Passion.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2016
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The story of American poet Emily Dickinson.


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