CAPSULE: Writer/director Terence Davies gives us a biography of Emily Dickinson. The film is A QUIET PASSION. It has too much quiet and not enough passion. The poet led a dry and stilted life and that really comes through in this dry and stilted drama. That may not be Davies' fault. Emily Dickinson is just not the most promising screen subject. Through most of her life she shut out the world and did not come alive. And it was optimistic to think she would come alive on the screen. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
Emily Dickenson wrote very good poetry, but its virtues do not translate well to the screen. Even the title suggests that the passion is so quiet you might miss it. This is a biographical film about Emily Dickinson, the Amherst, Massachusetts, poet who retreated to living in an attic and who then led an ascetic life writing poems and growing old. This subject does not seem as if it would make for cinema with much cinematic appeal. And indeed the film is not all that different from what it might have been expected to be. Emily has a bit more spirit than expected, but rather than compensating for an unexciting figure of literature, Terence Davies, who wrote and directed, slows down the entire film to a pacing that Emily might have preferred. At times the film slows to a minimal pace as the camera sits on a silent character or pans slowly around the room. The music is mostly songs of the period. (Emily lived from 1830 to 1886.) More often the mood is created by having Cynthia Nixon, who plays the adult Emily, read a poem or two in voice-over. The relation between the plot and the chosen poem is not always obvious. Cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is subtle and does not call attention to itself, but it is one of the better features of the film.
As a youth Emily (young she is played by Emma Bell, as an adult by Cynthia Nixon) seems to have had some inner fire. Later events will test her liberal viewpoint. As the film opens Emily is a schoolgirl who finds that teachers, graduation speakers, and even relatives seem to constantly lecture Emily on religion. One gets the impression that in this society everyone preaches to everyone else. Emily has the backbone to stand up to the efforts and though she does seem to have some belief in God, she is not going to let others tell her what to think. Davies' dialog is quick to define a character, but it is spoken like the diction in a live play. There is a pause between sentences so the listener can catch up.
When Emily does exhibit some wit the viewer is left wondering where it came from. Everybody seems to stand in line to judge Emily. And Emily seems to forever be fighting convention, but she leads such a stilted life she makes convention seem like the better alternative.
Emily Dickinson may have been a great poet, but this is not such a great film. I rate A QUIET PASSION a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. It will be on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray beginning July 11, 2017.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2392830/combined
What others are saying: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/a_quiet_passion
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2017 Mark R. Leeper