FILM: Emily Dickinson “A Quiet Passion”

I’ve just emerged, blinking, into daylight from spending/wasting 2 hours with Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion” (director: Terence Davies).

If you’re intending to watch it:

  • sit in a fully darkened room so you can see what’s onscreen in the gloom
  • don’t try it as a date night
  • don’t watch it (unless you love Ingmar Bergman-esque films)

I don’t know who this film was made for – possibly students of philosophy and those keen to have an excuse for a good cry. It offers little for fans of Emily or literary historians although it does offer some spicey amuses bouches for feminists.

The online film critics admired it (Mark Kermode, Roger Ebert) , but there are uncomplimentary online comments onscreen from ordinary filmgoers and an Emily Dickinson scholar (which merits a raised eyebrow and a warning klaxon).

I came to the film interested in Emily as a writer – but this film said little, glossing over long years of non-writing and insisting that the regular schedule worked for her (whereas she wrote in a Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862 “when I try to organize – my little Force explodes – and leaves me bare and charred”.)  There was little evidence that she enjoyed books either – I would have loved a scene where she was in her room at 3 am, reading a Victorian novel with relish, her feet up on the bed, turning the pages and entering into a world more exciting than her own home life.  We were told of writers she liked, rather than shown.

To be fair to the director, the shadowy film lighting was historically accurate, and also Emily becomes reclusive towards the end of her life, so naturally most of the second half of the film was indoors. But she was a keen, expert baker and this is not shown, just alluded to. In fact, most of the film you are TOLD through words, rather than shown through pictures. In many ways, it would have made a good radio play.

The dialogue has a great deal of witty exchanges about philosophy, life, morals – but in

Screen shot 2020-02-29 at 16.18.50
“Yo Emily! Stop harshing my mellow!”

Victorian convoluted language – it felt like a plate of spaghetti where you had to dig very hard to find the meatballs. It’s so obscure than somebody, somewhere, will subtitle it in street-speak and it will be hilarious:

 

 

The film nobly but misguidedly tries to squash 40 years of her life into 2 hours. So we have glossy set pieces, but not enough scenes in depth. To be fair, there is a good key scene where her sister-in-law bustles over, from next door, concerned because she sees the light on – to find a radiant Emily saying that this is her usual time to write. They have a short but intense conversation about the difference in one’s life as a writer compared to the other’s more traditional wife/mother role.

The acting by the actresses was good throughout – especially Emily Dickinson played by Cynthia Nixon channelling Nicole Kidman, who had to mutate through the years from a moderately handsome and poised young woman into a haggard, overly shiny eyed, brittle and embittered woman in her fifties. Jennifer Ehle is fantastic as the ever present sister – I had to squint at her “Where had I seen her before?” before recognising her as the lead character in the classic BBC adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”: Elizabeth Bennett to Colin Firth’s immortal Mr Darcy.

Imdbh
*COSTUME ALERT* everything is period costume except male actor’s hair

GOOD POINTS

  • kudos for attempting to show the life of a non-pretty woman
  • no intrusive music throughout
  • good costume/hairstyles except. as usual, for the one guy with modern haircut (worst example of this for me, ever was Hugh Grant in the otherwise excellent “Sense and Sensibility” by Emma Thompson)
  • excellent acting by main female leads

BAD POINTS

  • dreariness
  • not showing Emily’s private literary world
  • speech far too fast to catch meaning of witty word plays, could have been interspersed with pauses to slow down
  • trying to show too many years in one life, skimming
  • concealing the historical fact that she was so secret a poet
  • not showing any normal, enjoyable activity of the reclusive genius
  • no indication of her letter correspondence with the outside world
  • strongly featuring a female version of Oscar Wilde – but then not showing any influence on Emily and whisking character offstage – why was she given so much screentime?

 

 

VERDICT

Not worth watching unless you enjoy angst and physical suffering or are indifferent to literary history/poetry

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