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Tuesday, January 02, 2018

A Quiet Passion

There have been countless movies about writers, usually having them involved in some sort of adventurous plot, such as Edgar Allan Poe solving a mystery. Showing writers write is about as uninteresting as it gets. To top it off, making a film about a woman who wrote poems that went largely unpublished while staying in her room presents unique challenges.

Therefore, that Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion, about Emily Dickinson, is something of a triumph. It is on Film Comment's Best Films of the Year list, and I quite agree, although it is certainly for viewers of a more literary bent. You are not required to have read her poems to enjoy it, but you should probably enjoy her poems if you do read them.

Dickinson arguably is the greatest poet in American history. She wrote 1800 poems, but only a handful were published in her lifetime. She grew up in a well-to-do family in Amherst. The first part of her life appears to be somewhat normal, although she was not on board with the religious theories of the day. We see her rescued from Mount Holyoke by her family after she questions whether she knows the grace of God.

Portrayed beautifully by Cynthia Nixon (who looks just like her), she does a fair bit of socializing, but is uninterested in marriage, saying she needs only her family. Her father is a liberal-minded lawyer (Keith Carradine), Jennifer Ehle her devoted sister. They have a friend with the unlikely name of Vryly Buffam (Cynthia Bailey) who speaks in epigrams like Oscar Wilde. One of the great pleasures of this film is the dizzyingly erudite dialogue.

Dickinson was obsessed with death, eternity, and immortality in her life and in her works. After her father dies, she takes her to room and rarely comes out. When visitors come she calls down from her bedroom. When she catches her married brother recumbent with another woman (interestingly, it is the woman, Molly Loomis Todd, who was most responsible for getting her poems published posthumously) she is furious at his lack of morals.

In fact, adding it all up, A Quiet Passion shows Dickinson to be quite disagreeable. She is steadfastly honest, even if cruel, and frequently self-righteous (the only romantic interest the films shows is her attachment to a married minister, something Ehle calls her out on).

We are taken through the suffering she went through dying of Bright's disease, and as her body is taken to her grave we hear her most famous poem, "Because I could not stop for death." I am sure this film will be shown in many high school and college English classes.

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