There’s more to Dickinson than meets the daguerreotype

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

A Quiet Passion
Roxy Theatre
Opens April 28
3.5 out of 5

One of the major voices in American literature, Emily Dickinson never got the recognition she deserved while she was alive. Even though she rarely left her house, Dickinson’s inner life was so rich, it led to a body of work marked by vivid representation of her emotions. Her difficulty reconciling faith with the repressive nature of religion was her main source of inspiration.

In Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, the feminist aspect of Emily Dickinson takes center stage. Far from the stately, withdrawn image the general public has of the author, the character depicted in the film is lively and passionate. Blessed with an education and tolerant parents (not bad for a child of the mid-1800s), Emily becomes too smart to accept an inequality-based belief system at face value.

Dickinson becomes a sharp, witty woman, virtues we celebrate today but which at the time put distance between her and potential suitors. Her defiance of convention gets the spinster labeled as “eccentric”, but the social disapproval is barely a passing inconvenience next to the inner turmoil of perhaps being wicked in the eyes of the Lord.

Better known as Miranda in Sex and the City (another character whose intelligence is treated as a turn-off), Cynthia Nixon is superb as the proto-feminist Dickinson. But the real star of the film is the thick, literary script by writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea). The filmmaker does a great job depicting the oppression of morality without being heavy-handed about it.

A Quiet Passion is filled with quotable lines (enduring calamities “put iron on the soul”). Traditionally built, the biopic is also peppered with Dickinson’s verses, linked — in theory — to whatever we’re witnessing on screen.

Since film is seldom the appropriate vehicle for poetry, the approach fails more often than not. Thankfully, the character study is strong enough to withstand a pretty considerable flaw. ❧