Film & Television

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

Despite several years on Sex & The City, Cynthia Nixon is a celebrated actress who doesn’t shy away from challenging roles onstage or onscreen. (In fairness, she earned her first Emmy for Sex & The City. She has two, as well a Grammy, a Tony and many other honors.) Having studied English at Barnard (while starring in two Broadway shows simultaneously, racing between nearby theatres between scenes), Nixon took on the role with her usual (quiet) passion. She’s quick to point out that there was more to Dickinson than a lonely spinster writing her little poems. “Terence didn’t want her to be solemn or meek,” she said in a recent New Yorker interview. “He thought she was savagely funny. She saw the world around her and herself with a really unforgiving eye. And, when you see the gaps between what’s supposed to be and what is, you can be depressed, or you can see the humor in it.”  Of the poet’s relationship with her sister, Nixon explains, “They say Emily was the flower and her sister was the waterer.”

It’s wonderful to see Jennifer Ehle as the poet’s “waterer.” The daughter of British stage legend Rosemary Harris, and a Tony award-winner herself, Ehle came to the attention of most of us for her warm and witty portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett in the beloved 1995 BBC mini-series Pride and Prejudice. A lot of the sheer sparkle she brought to that role is on display here. She is clever, funny, and devoted to her sister. After a particularly savage verbal attack, Emily challenges her, “How can you go on loving me?” Ehle, as Vinnie, responds without hesitation. “Because you are so easy to love.”

From an early age, Dickinson was plagued by the effects of Bright’s disease, an incurable ailment of the kidneys that caused swelling, excruciating torment in her back, and eventually seizures. In her poetry, she mused morbidly on the nature of chronic pain:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

Although A Quiet Passion doesn’t attempt to psychoanalyze Dickinson too much, Davies does offer a tapestry of clues that might explain why she retreated from life in her later years. Unable to sell her poems while she lived, Dickinson dismisses the concept of posthumous fame as cold comfort. It might have been colder still if she’d known that her brother’s lover, Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Emily reviled, was responsible for her work being published.

Throughout A Quiet Passion, Nixon reads relevant Dickinson poems as a meditative voiceover. These are some of the gentlest and loveliest moments in the film. As expected, once Emily dies (be warned: there are multiple, emotional deathbed scenes), we hear the words of Dickinson’s most familiar poem:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –  
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  
And Immortality.

A Quiet Passion is fairly long (over two hours) and feels longer. Yet, the title is misleading. Davies has made an epic film about a seemingly quiet life. In reality, Dickinson rages against her limitations: societal, religious, and finally physical. English majors will be enthralled, as will viewers interested in women’s issues. From the opinionated and deliberate young Emily to her eventual decision to live as a real-life “madwoman in the attic,” it’s a haunting portrait of one of America’s most celebrated voices.

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