Terence Davies’ biographical film about Emily Dickinson, starring Sex and The City’s Cynthia Nixon as the reclusive American poet, was released on DVD earlier this month. Sarah Slade sees how the truth has been slanted.
I first found Emily Dickinson thanks to my English teacher, a very proper Southern Baptist from Alabama, who thought Cleopatra was no better than she should be and that we should be studying Dickinson’s poetry instead of Hardy’s. She was half right.
Dickinson’s work wasn’t widely published during her lifetime. Publishers thought nothing of editing the idiosyncratic punctuation or rearranging the words to make them more conventionally ‘poetical’. Nevertheless, her poems were startlingly prescient of modernism; impressionistic rather than descriptive, deceptively playful and oblique. She never married and rarely left her family home in Amherst, Mass.
Her life makes Dickinson the perfect subject for Terence Davies, known for his sensitive, beautiful studies of lives narrowed and constrained by circumstance and convention. A Quiet Passion starts with teenage Emily (Emma Bell) defying her evangelist teacher, leading to her ‘rescue’ by her loving family. From here the film rarely strays beyond the Dickinsons’ garden gate. The first half seems pitched as a sub-Austen social comedy. Adult Emily bakes prize-winning bread and exchanges barbed witticisms with her sister (Jennifer Ehle), her oddly-named friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and various friendsandrelations. Her literary ambitions are tolerated by her father (Keith Carradine in full whiskers) as long as they didn’t interfere with her household duties. Her world is small, but full. She rebels in small ways, like refusing to go to church on Sundays, while still being of enough consequence to invite the pastor and his wife for tea. Davies weaves Dickinson’s poems between the exquisitely staged and shot scenes, like night after day, reflecting that Dickinson’s real life – the life of a poet – only happened in the inbetween, when nobody else required her.
Davies touches lightly but significantly on the gender politics of Dickinson’s life. As an unmarried woman, she is expected to put aside her ambitions and serve the family. Yet if she marries, she becomes completely dependent on her husband. As her friends (including Vryling) give up and succumb to married life – in itself a kind of death – Dickinson, as imagined by Davies, reacts by refusing to marry, by withdrawing further into the sphere where she can retain total control. In the end her only form of attack is to retreat so completely that all that remains is her work.
This is a Terence Davies film, so each scene is a perfectly realised artwork in its own right. From the creams and whites of the wedding scenes to the subdued earthy colours of the house, to the almost gaudy springtimes that form the backdrop to Dickinson’s early life, the settings reflect the time and the mood.
So here’s the stuff I didn’t like. While the film portrays her inner and outer life so beautifully, it falls down when it tries to expand into the world beyond her front door. There are parallels with the Brontë sisters – also unmarried, also supernaturally talented, recreating whole literary genres from a Yorkshire parsonage. Emily admires them while Amherst Society tuts at their boldness, but their inclusion seems clumsy. Emerson and Longfellow are mentioned in passing, and nothing much is made of the way Dickinson’s poems were mangled by well-meaning editors prior to publication. While we hear her poems recited by Cynthia Nixon in voice-over, Davies falls prey to the divine inspiration cliche, not letting us see how she worked at her poetry, or who helped her achieve her unique literary voice.
History with a capital H also intrudes with an odd interlude where the dead of various major Civil War battles are listed against a backdrop of horribly maimed bodies; and Austin Dickinson (Duncan Duff) remarks that the President’s address at Gettysburg was too short to be memorable. In a film so laden with symbolism, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be evidence of his poor judgement, or another odd little joke (many of the jokes, especially Vryling’s arch little epigrams, tumbled into a clueless void…)
A Quiet Passion succeeds as a study of a narrow life that becomes narrower and more constrained over time, while also managing to bubble over with creativity, wit and intellectual freedom. There are niggles (I’ve listed a few) and some significant glitches. It’s a bit odd, for example, that an actress of Jennifer Ehle’s ability should be reduced to nodding and smiling and opening doors for people. Cynthia Nixon does a great job in the central role, but the film sometimes seems cobbled together from fragments that once told another story. Whether this is down to the continuing academic controversies over the modern portrayal of Dickinson as a feminist pioneer, or confusion over which version of Dickinson we should believe. Or maybe, as Dickinson once wrote;
A Quiet Passion is now available on DVD in the UK.