A Quiet Passion at TIFF16

“A Quiet Passion” is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is written and directed by the esteemed English auteur Terence Davies, who brought us the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” in 2000, “The Deep Blue Sea” based on Terence Rattigan’s play in 2011, and last year’s “Sunset Song”, a beautiful cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.

Literary filmmaking is Davies’ repertoire. If a movie is about a poet, under his helm, it is only natural that it would be crafted like poetry. In this sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a fine example. Every frame is meticulously composed and lit, the atmosphere dense with meaning. We also hear lines from Dickinson’s poems read out as voiceover. We experience poetry in sight and sound.

However, not all poetry is of the Romantics, roaming vales and hills, dancing with the daffodils. Davies’s Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) is confined in her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) Amherst house. Her main human interactions are with her immediate family, a stern father, a depressed mother (Emily Norcross), an attorney brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and her younger sister (Jennifer Ehle). If she ever felt claustrophobic, there’s her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and her close friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Too narrow a social circle? Not really, for they are all responsible for sharpening her views and words. And they make a wonderful cast.


Terence Davies, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey
Under the direction of Davies, Cynthia Nixon (of ‘Sex and the City’ fame) portrays Emily Dickinson with an austere persona restrained by social mores and troubled by unrequited romantic pursuit. She might have been a rebel with a just cause in confronting restrictive societal norms, but I was surprised to see Dickinson here as a verbal combatant, a bitter and belligerent soul. Somehow from my limited reading of her poetry, that image has not set in my mind.

“A Quiet Passion” is a mixed bag of oxymoron. In an austere setting, characters deliver ornate speeches like you only hear in a stage play. Shrouded in a confining milieu, you hear comedic exchanges and humorous, deadpan facial expressions, even LOL moments. While the cinematography is meditative and calm (as in Davies’ last work “Sunset Song”), the feeling evoked is unsettling anticipation.

Emily’s supportive and devoted sister Lavinia (Vinnie), well played by Jennifer Ehle (of Elizabeth Bennet fame), gives me a breath of fresh air, for often she is the quiet passion supporting the poet, a gentle strength and a moral compass. Vinnie is the pragmatic and rational voice, like reminding Emily that Rev. Wadsworth—on whom Emily has a romantic crush—is a married man. But she is ever so sweet and pleasant as Jennifer Ehle is, even when admonishing.

The sisterhood between Nixon’s Emily and Ehle’s Vinnie makes me think of another literary sisterhood, that of Jane and Cassandra Austen. But what a difference. I long for Jane’s joie de vivre, something that’s missing here in this relatively harsh portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Further, I couldn’t help but compare this film with another that’s also about a poet: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful cinematic rendering of the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

The last scenes are as severe as they are heart breaking. Death may be a frequent motif in Dickinson’s poetry, as Emily had experienced the passing of her parents, but the constant pounding of her own illness makes me think of another oxymoron: superfluous suffering. The repeated scenes of seizures Emily goes through in the last section of the film may be a bit too much to watch for some, although Nixon has certainly given us a true-to-life performance. I can’t imagine all the takes she had to repeat, acting out those excruciating seizures on her bed.

When asked about the seizures in the Q & A after, Nixon replied that she had not done any research or specifically prepared; she just went ahead and did it. All the research had been done by Davies. He had read up on volumes of Dickinson’s biographies for the film.

What “A Quiet Passion” has done for me is stirring up my curiosity in finding out what Emily Dickinson the person was really like, and, I want to delve into more of her poetry. I have to remind myself though that the cinematic portrayal here is only Davies’ own interpretation and personal response to her poetry. I just like to explore on my own.

~ ~ ~ Ripples




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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

10 thoughts on “A Quiet Passion at TIFF16”

    1. Michelle,

      Overall, it’s meticulously filmed and at times, quite humorous. But one has to be on the alert to unpack the meaning in the elaborate dialogues and poetic voiceover. As an artist, you’d likely be interested in the cinematography. 😉


  1. I always liked Dickinson’s poetry — or what I remember of it — but this does sound like a beautiful but tough film to watch. I had been anticipating this one but now I’m not quite so sure as I was. (But it would be such fun to see Jennifer Ehle again. Her smile just lights up a room.)


    1. But Jeanie, pls. don’t be influenced by me. 😉 There are lots to watch here, and as a matter of fact, Jennifer Ehle was the main reason I wanted to see it. And was I ever glad that I did, as I saw the real person! It was a mixed bag of a film, I’m sure you’ll find something you enjoy, especially if you know D’s poetry.


    1. Stefanie,

      As far as my memory goes, no, we didn’t get to see ED baking or gardening. Just walking in her garden. But as my last paragraph implies, if you or me were making this film, I’m sure we’d put in scenes of her doing these activities. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I came away from your review with the feeling that the filmmaker had an agenda, and that the reality of Emily Dickinson’s life was neither so severe nor so constrained as portrayed in the film. To say that she was “constrained in her father’s house” suggests a woman being controlled by those around her: perhaps by force. To some degree the mores and social conventions of the time surely felt constraining but, to be quite frank, they don’t seem to have affected her as much as the constraints she imposed upon herself.

    She not only gardened and baked, she was quite an accomplished botanist, who sent pressed flowers from her garden in her correspondence. She took gifts to the neighbors, and, even after her isolation became more evident, she would bring herself out to help with social events before taking to her seclusion again. As for the “seizures” portrayed, I believe Lyndall Gordon, a senior research fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, was one of the first to suggest epilepsy might have afflicted her: but he based his conclusion on her poems.

    I don’t begrudge filmmakers their latitude, but from what I’ve learned of Dickinson in the past year, I have a sense that Davies took a bit more latitude than is warranted. I was eager to read your review, since I’ve become a Dickinson fan, but after reading your review, I’m not sure I’d enjoy the film. I prefer a bit more bio, and a bit less pic, I guess.


    1. Interesting you said “the filmmaker had an agenda”. He may or may not, but the film definitely shows his choice of perspective. Another commenter, Stafanie, mentioned ED was an expert baker as you’ve also said. I’ve read too that she loved baking and spent time in the kitchen. Even wrote a poem at the back of a recipe. But there’s no scene depicting that love of hers. What we see is just one side of her in this film.


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