Review: A QUIET PASSION, Inner Life of a Poet in Terence Davies's Masterful Film

Another masterpiece from Terence Davies, A QUIET PASSION stars Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson.

Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
Review: A QUIET PASSION, Inner Life of a Poet in Terence Davies's Masterful Film

Just like many artists, Emily Dickinson never saw fame nor recognition as a poet in her lifetime. Her poetry and letters were only read and appreciated posthumously, after her death in 1886. Many of her admirers of her work say, not only her intimate poems touched them, but also with unusual punctuation and dashes, her style was ahead of its time.

One of her ardent admirers happens to be Terence Davies (Long Day Closes, Deep Blue Sea) one of the greatest living British filmmakers. The nationality of his female subject might be different here, but there are a lot of common themes coursing through A Quiet Passion which his past films also bear - family, struggling within a strict social norm, independence and freedom, isolation and depression.

Born in a wealthy, respected family in Amherst, MA with loving parents and supportive siblings, Emily (played by Emma Bell as younger, then Cynthia Nixon as older Dickinson) grows up to be an honest, smart young woman who can think for herself. She is seen first as a young woman in Mount Holyoke Seminary school, defying the wishes of her teacher with her logical defense to be indecisive in either accepting or denying god. But being a woman of the 19th Century, Emily struggles from early on with her self image, patriarchy, conservative, puritanical society, sexism, the thought of death and immortality. 

Davies, an ardent reader of Dickinson's poetry, composed a truly beautiful script here, imagining much of the film's dialog that lends the full view of the complicated poet and the great Cynthia Nixon personifies her in flesh and blood. Even though Dickinson lived most of her adult life in isolation, through her letters and 1,800 unpublished poems, and as we see in the film, she led a quite passionate inner life. 

Unlike many fathers in Davies' other films who terrorize the working class families and women, Edward Dickinson, played here beautifully by Keith Carradine, is a learned, dignified man who is a main stable force for Emily to depend upon. Strict but humble, it is his dignity and sense of right and wrong that deeply affects Emily's upbringing. She strikes up a friendship with free spirited Ms. Buffam (amusingly played by Catherine Bailey) whose acerbic wit matches her own. They talk about being friends forever but both know that when the time comes, more extroverted Buffam would marry and settle and move away. And she does. 

Dickinson briefly romances a married pastor but the bitter experience turns her more into isolation. After their parents' death, Emily becomes more embittered with life, she isolates herself even further, wearing only white and communicates her thoughts mostly in letters. Her devout younger sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) becomes her only source of checks and balances against Emily becoming a bitter, defeated person.

Death and immortality were her big themes in her writing as she was weary of attaching herself to anyone and always worried about everyone close to her leaving. Calling herself nobody, she was aware that her writing wouldn't be recognized by anyone in her lifetime.

Davies succeeds in showing a complicated woman bound by tradition and societal rules. But however tragic and lonely her life was, he also shows us that Dickinson lived the way she wanted to, that it was her own choosing, that she was a thoroughly modern woman, defining the world the only way she knew how. A Quiet Passion is another masterpiece from Davies.

A Quiet Passion opens in New York on Friday, April 14 (Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Quad Cinema). National roll out to follow.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema can be found at

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Cynthia NixonEmily DickinsonEmma BellTerence Davies

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