The British filmmaker Terence Davies has often told stories about women trapped in the rigid customs of an earlier era, including The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea and Sunset Song. With his new film, A Quiet Passion, the writer-director turns his attention to a real-life subject, the poet Emily Dickinson. Film critic Justin Chang says:
“For most of the movie, Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, who gives a brilliant performance of steely wit, but also surprising vulnerability. As she moves through the sunny gardens and lamp-lit drawing rooms of 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts, Nixon’s Emily rebukes every reductive image we have of her as a dour, reclusive spinster. She is, on the contrary, a brilliant conversationalist and a lover of good company. She is also a gifted poet, who spends the wee hours of the morning lost in her writing, making what will one day be hailed as a monumental contribution to American literature.
She does this with the permission of her father, played by Keith Carradine, who is both enchanted and exasperated by his daughter’s razor-sharp mind and ungovernable spirit. The scenes of the Dickinsons together at home, beautifully filmed by the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, are a delight, even the ones that roil with tension. You understand that this is a household where both religious devotion and intellectual freedom have been nurtured and allowed to coexist. Written and directed by the British filmmaker Terence Davies, A Quiet Passion creates an inner world that, for all its rigid social and personal constraints, feels alive with the possibilities of language. The formal dialogue, with its stately, mannered rhythms, becomes a kind of music. Simply listening to it can be bewildering at first, then absorbing, then transfixing. Its purpose, in line with the highest ideals of poetry itself, is to clear the mind and stir the soul.”
You said silver crowns with rubies and emeralds and
sapphires; you said ballerinas in soft satin balancing on tiptoes; you said
eyelashes heavy with golden glitter. You promised beauty and delicacy and grace
and glory, and I was a girl with big eyes shining with dreams of wedding bells
and picket fences, listening to your voice like a pyromaniac watches magma
You weren’t what I wanted, not orange licking flames, but
you were all heat and destruction. You insisted you were the void, the inside
of a volcano, and I wanted you to see your glowing embers. We both fell short,
and we both tried to convince ourselves otherwise, and you know what the worst
It worked, and no one threw a rock at our little glass
house, smudged and cracked at the edges anyway; but we handed each other a
hammer and an axe, then we asked ourselves if the glass raining down on us was
worth the soft rainbows and blood on our cheeks.
It made it harder to accept that our cheeks were wet with
blood, not tears; harder than realizing the four walls you’ve lived in all your
life were in the middle of a maze all this time, and really, there’s no way
out. The difference is that there was a lamp-lit garden path away from the
remains of the glass, but the remains never stopped.