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A Quiet Passion is an Anachronistic Tale

2017 promises change, not least on the political spectrum. People are no longer apathetic (although Charlie Brooker is nostalgic for the phrase ‘meh‘) when it comes to what we want from our time on Earth. Although we never reach the enlightenment we crave, we can continue to educate ourselves.

The film industry likes to educate via historical bio-pics, casting its eye on the past, nodding sagely, thinking “well at least things are better now than then.” If only. One such film fixated on the transformative qualities of the past is A Quiet Passion.

A Quiet Passion nestles comfortably within the Period Drama (emphasis on the Drama) category, with Writer/Director Terence Davies in his element, taking a life and stretching it to form a broad concept. A Quiet Passion ably demonstrates how society was worse for women back in the 19th Century, but of course we knew that.

The film concerns poet Emily Dickinson’s life, and it ticks all of the boxes. Attention to detail is scrupulous, the facts are correct, and the script is laden with beautiful phrasing. Dickinson’s trials easily transcend time, including the ongoing search for happiness and the attainment of equality. Yet, A Quiet Passion shows Dickinson’s talents dampened by depression and the rules of a society that are biased against her. This is a movie primarily about suffering for art, but it also shows how life – even a life blighted by tragedy – can include moments of joy.

The story starts with Dickinson being rescued from a puritanical ladies school and taken back to Amherst, the family home, by her mother, her father (Keith Carradine, who is excellent) sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle, also great) and brother Austin (Duncan Duff, who has such a lack of vanity that his Wikipedia page does not yet feature the film). This family frame Dickinson’s small, reclusive and ultimately (if unbeknownst to Dickinson at the time) fruitful life.

Young Dickinson (Emily Bell) is quickly replaced by the real star of the film – Cynthia Nixon, who drives 95% of the film. It is her best work to date. I believed every word, and Davies did not make those words easy to deliver. Nixon shows every moment of Emily’s visceral pain. I also enjoyed Ehle’s portrayal of Lavinia, she is purity when her sister is venom and her brother is avarice.  This purity is never pious, Lavinia is Emily’s shield for surviving a life that has been mapped out from birth.

Davies’s touch (he of The Deep Blue Sea and Of Time and the City fame) is so recognisable here, with his knack for matching tone to setting. In Dickinson’s world language is everything, even if most of her language has an acid bite. Davies is generous to every player, including casting Sara Vertongen as Emily’s friend, a woman never stung by the barbs of their clever conversations.

The script is intellectual and full of a dry wit, which I loved, but many will find boring. The explosions that occur in Dickinson’s world are inward, within the heart, leaving equal destruction in their wake. Family members become ill, suffer horribly and then die, this devastation only lessened by weddings, babies and the odd village fete. And there is a message amongst the plight; Dickinson’s father’s decision to let her write at night and encouragement in publishing her poems, is an impressive feminist statement.

What gives the meat to the bones of A Quiet Passion is that these real events continue to affect us today. Not just in terms of equality, but we haven’t yet mastered mental illness, poverty, infidelity and the destructive power of grief. But I can’t help thinking that enduring these trials held the key to Dickinson’s immense talent.

I take comfort in watching A Quiet Passion. We’ve been here before, we’ve learned something and the best is yet to come.

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