At different times jubilant and somber, but always with a slicing wit that would make the subject proud, Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion is a cinematic embodiment of the remarkable American poet, Emily Dickinson.
It would be a disservice to the the film to say it is about Emily Dickinson rather than to say the film IS the character of Emily Dickinson.
The film starts when Emily is removed from a private school by her family, due in part to her rebellious ways and dismissive opinion of the dire frivolity of religion. The theme of religion and the preordained state of the human soul powers the narrative and, undoubtedly, fuels the poetry that would become her legacy.
Emily’s adulthood would come to be around the time of the Civil War, and while the subject of slavery is briefly argued, it can not be dismissed when taking into account the narrative punctuation Davies’ places on the sactity of the human soul. Thematically, both cinematically as well as poetically by Dickinson, herself, the film argues for the importance of an inner independence that does not put itself at odds with religious beliefs, but rather reinforces them. Being that this theme is cast against the backdrop of an age where only White men in America truly had any say in the trajectory of their lives, there are struggles both with the physical world and within the characters.
One example of such a struggle is when Emily has to ask permission to write her poetry in the middle of the night in her family’s home. The topic is not argued or debated in any way that leads to didactic monologues as many films of this ilk would oft do, but is shown to merely be a characteristic of the time and place they live in. Her father appreciates her asking and Emily, in turn, offers her gratitude for his allowance of her writing.
Little by little the presuppositions of the world towards the roles of men and women seep into Emily’s life, much to the chagrin of a character who barracaded herself from presuppositions. The contradiction is the realization that words and actions do not always coalesce. And for a movie this garrulous, the emotive displays of contradiction swing like an anvil through the narrative.
Emily prides herself on being an independent soul, one who likens marriage to death, and the brutal realization that even someone with that sort of spiritual stoicism suffered the emptiness of this kind of life is enough to brand one a cycnic.
As Emily turns grim and pale with both physical and spiritual ailments, so, too, does the film. At the outset of the story we are treated with scenic gardens, brightly lit rooms and churches, and warm crackling fires, but eventually these are replaced by bitter light and dreary bedrooms devoid of all warmth and comfort. Sadly, too, our heroine suffers the eventual loss of inner-light and warmth.
The tragedy of the film is the triumph of the character. Emily Dickinson lived in a way that contradicted societal norms and eschewed traditional standards and values, much to her eventual detriment and misery, but to see a character make this kind of choice during an age where women’s choice was limited is a triumph. It brings into the question the enormity of the decisions we make. When she was young, Emily envisioned a happy life close to her family sans a husband. By the end of the film, when these wishes have come to fruition, the consequences of those choices are clear and the difficulty of confronting the outcomes of those choices is laid bare.
One does have to question the purpose in showing her misery and bitterness as an exclamation point on the film. Even while writing this, it is hard to envision what springs to mind upon first recollection of the film. Do I remember her poetry and the brilliance she was gifted with (she narrates her poetry throughout, but little relevance is placed upon her actual writing), or is the lasting image one of a sickly middle-aged woman gasping her last breath without the care and concern of a husband or children?
Emily Dickinson never received the notoriety she deserved while she was alive, as she is revered amongst American poets today, and that is certainly a sad footnote to an otherwise amazing talent. Though, in the end, the moral of the story might be that the soul has more to offer than earthly love and beauty when compared to the ethereal nature of poetry and the kinds of feelings and emotions one ascribes when they read an Emily Dickinson poem.