This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.
Time Travel Destination: 1840s-1880s
Stations: Literary Biopic, Costume Drama
Conductor: Terence Davies
“Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.”
A motion picture about the life about poet Emily Dickinson has never been made until now. How does one make a captivating biopic about a recluse? Director Terence Davies took on the task brilliantly with his feature film A Quiet Passion (2017).
The movie stars Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, a rebellious poet who forsakes the prospect of love to focus on her art and family. Her world centers around her home in Amherst, MA and as the years progress she retreats further and further into her home sometimes not even venturing down stairs. We watch her progress from a feisty outspoken teenager to a deeply sentient genius who translates emotions and ideas into beautiful poetry.
“My soul is my own.”
The viewer steps into the intimate space of Dickinson’s life and the players who inhabit her world. Her father (Keith Carradine), the stern patriarch who never understood his daughter’s rebellious spirit. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) who retreats more and more from life with each passing day. Then there is her sweet sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) who cares for Emily even when she doesn’t quite understand her motivations. Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), the pride of the family who loses Emily’s trust when he betrays his wife Susan (Jodhi May), one of Emily’s closest confidantes. And one of the few outsiders able to break through Dickinson’s small world is the Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) whose larger-than-life personality threatens to be contained by societal expectations.
The film wonderfully captures the many aspects of Dickinson’s era: the religiosity, deprivation, isolation, deep brooding, heightened emotions especially sadness and the almost painful simplicity of life and death. Terence Davies read numerous biographies on Emily Dickinson and steeped himself in the era and it shows. The attention to detail is astounding. A replica of Dickinson’s home in Amherst, MA was recreated in a studio in Belgium. Exteriors were shot on location in Amherst. The viewer will feel like they traveled to the era and not just a representation of it. Davies selected Nixon for the role of Emily Dickinson because of her remarkable resemblance to the poet. In one of the scenes of the film we watch as the family members have their portraits taken. Age progression shows the passing of 20+ years. Emma Bell, who plays young Emily, and Cynthia Nixon pose in the style of the famous portrait of Dickinson.
“My life has passed as if in a dream. As if I had never been part of it.”
I connected with this movie on a deeply personal level. As a lonely and angst ridden teenager I clung to writers such as Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, etc. With Dickinson especially I was drawn by her deep sense of isolation and how desperately she tried to make sense of the world.
Besides the incredible attention to historical accuracy and setting, I love how Davies and his crew imbibe the film with so much color. Many of us think of this era in American history as drab, steeped in sepia. There is so much color and vibrancy in this movie. It makes us understand a bit how overwhelming and heartbreaking beautiful the world was to Dickinson. In addition to the age progression scene, another element that stood out was the Civil War slideshow which featured colorized photos of Lincoln, soldiers, the battlefields, etc.
Cynthia Nixon delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful performance as Emily Dickinson. When she uttered these words, I felt like someone had just punched me in my gut:
“For those of us who live minor lives and are deprived of a particular kind of love, we know best how to starve. We deceive ourselves and others. It is the worst kind of lie.”
There are many great performances in this film but I was particularly drawn to Keith Carradine as Edward Dickinson. He perfectly captures exactly what I would have imagined a stern, religious father of the 19th Century to be. I was also drawn by Catherine Bailey whose performance as Vryling Buffam imbues life into the story. I definitely want to see more of her work.
A Quiet Passion (2017) stirs up a lot of emotion. Davies delivers a powerful biopic about an elusive figure whose poetry has transcended many generations.