Film & Television

‘A Quiet Passion’—A Moving Portrait of the Belle of Amherst

The first review I ever wrote (college, junior year) was of The Belle of Amherst, the one-woman play by William Luce. It was a local production and, if I remember correctly, long and rather lackluster. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to see Julie Harris who won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Emily Dickinson. She was lauded by The Wall Street Journal for her ability to “convey profound inner turmoil at the same time that she displays irrepressible gaiety of spirit.”

In A Quiet Passion, the masterful new film by Terence Davies, Dickinson’s gay spirit succumbs to her inner turmoil all too quickly. We first meet her as a clever but willful student at Mount Holyoke. Rigorously catechized, she refuses to submit to the evangelical fervor of the matron and other students. When asked if she’s ready to be saved, she counters, “I am not even awakened yet.” Young Emily is deeply spiritual (and remains so all her life), but rebels against organized, authoritarian religion. Branded a “no-hoper,” she leaves the school and returns to the bosom of her unconventional family.

The Dickinsons were comfortable but not terribly wealthy. Emily’s father, Edward, was an attorney and a trustee of Amherst College. Her mother (also Emily) suffered from depression, and the household comprised three siblings, brother Austin and sister Vinnie in addition to Emily. As teenagers, the Dickinson children were unusually well informed and educated. In the early scenes of A Quiet Passion, it’s clear that Emily has great capacity for joy but a tendency to overthink. The family’s stuffy aunt is taken aback by the gregariousness of her nephew and (especially) her nieces. But, their father defends their unorthodox attitudes. “Docility,” he warns, “Is too much like slavery.”

As she grows up, it becomes clear that slavery in any form is an anethma to Emily. Whether the shackles are forced upon her by societal convention, religious doctrine, or marriage. As a young girl, she enjoys the company of her sister and their close friend Vryling Buffam. The three girls giggle and flirt at the annual commencement ball when Emily herself proposes, “Let’s not be anything today except superficial.” Although much is made later about Emily’s plain looks (mostly by the poet herself), she appears a handsome young woman by the standards of the era, dressed in fashionable mid-1800s lace, hoop skirt, parasol, and fan. She’s not as pretty as her sister or as coquettish as her friend, but there is nothing particularly austere about her. Of course, this changes dramatically as Emily ages.

Over time, Emily rejects the traditional roles open to women. She becomes more and more eccentric, dresses only in white, doesn’t leave the house, and communicates with visitors from a hidden spot upstairs, answering even the most sincere suitors with sphinx-like wordplay. Her sister Vinnie cajoles her, but ultimately cannot rouse her from the living dream state she’s chosen. The passage of time is an important theme in Davies’ film, as it is in Dickinson’s poetry:

Look back on time with kindly eyes,
He doubtless did his best;
How softly sinks his trembling sun
In human nature’s west!

There’s a marvelous sequence early on, where we see the young Dickinson family grow up and older. Each sits for a portrait. (There’s a bit of staunch New England humor when the photographer encourages stern Edward to smile. “This is my smile,” Emily’s father retorts, as severe and thin-lipped as ever.) In  the course of a single extended nineteenth century shutter speed, each character ages smoothly before our eyes. Keith Carradine (Edward) and Joanna Bacon (Emily senior) do so with the help of makeup. But, younger actors Benjamin Wainwright (Austin) and Rose Williams (Vinnie) transition to their more mature counterparts Duncan Duff and Jennifer Ehle. Emma Bell, whose more contemporary credits include Dallas, American Horror Story and a 6-episode arc on The Walking Dead, morphs into Cynthia Nixon, and Emily Dickinson’s story is in capable hands indeed.

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