With a title like A Quiet Passion (2017) and a topic such as Emily Dickinson, audiences should know that this biopic is not going to be full of action, sex, or even much romance. What drama comes is from seeing how the few, yet piercing events of this 19th-century recluse’s life created an artistic miasma that resulted in her poetry. Director / writer Terence Davies uses lighting, angles, and dialog as precise and cutting as Dickinson’s own poetry to create believable moods and influences for an artistic life. And, of course, he intercuts Cynthia Nixon (who plays Dickinson) speaking the poetry at appropriate scenes.
This is not a film for everyone. If you aren’t already a fan of Emily Dickinson, this may be too slow and moody and you might be better off just picking up a book of her poems and seeing if any of them stick. But if you already know her work, this is an amazing attempt to imagine what could have been inside her head and what her life might have been like, from her point of view. The movie is not the most historically accurate account of her life (inflating some characters in importance, demoting others), but it’s a beautiful impression from a poetic stance — an emotional biography more than anything.
A Quiet Passion does have passion in it, Emily’s passion for individualism and rebellion, but being Emily Dickinson, she doesn’t express these by cutting off her hair and joining the army or any such wild and crazy action. She writes poems, and she bickers with her family, sometimes with really funny barbs. The film does have some great humor in it, among all the ruminations on religion, loneliness, and death.
Nixon’s performance is a fine tribute to the poet, showing a combination of caged wildness, fierce independence, and restrained heartache that all come across in small tones of voice or subtle movements. There are sudden outbursts of anger and laughter that feel extremely significant because of how carefully constructed all the other expressions within the film have been.
Costumes in A Quiet Passion
Most of this movie’s costumes are from the 1840 – 1860s, the primetime of the Death of Fashion in my book, so no, I’m not going to belabor the point. The film actually extends over more than 30 years, which is shown through appropriate costume changes. The first 10 minutes or so show Emily at the Mount Holyoke School in the late 1840s, and the Dickinson family are played by younger actors. They transition to the older actors for the rest of the movie, who get slight adjustments of hair and makeup to suit their aging, but nothing over the top.
Everything looks fine, as it should be, just standard-issue and ugly-for-the-period. Costume designer Catherine Marchand got the details down, and apparently director Terence Davies even had a thought for the costume, noting in an interview how much historical accuracy mattered to him:
“People were dirty, they smelled, and their lives were about anything but prettiness. Perhaps no film can convey the full extent of it, but you can at least attempt to capture it. In this film, only the father has a stiff collar. All the other characters have floppy ones because they would’ve sweat through them. When Emily waves goodbye to Vryling, the back of her dress is faded, and at the commencement ball, the dress falls off one shoulder so it’s not symmetrical. That’s what it would’ve looked like.”
Sure, I’ll buy that explanation. Perfection isn’t always what’s right for a scene, depending on what the action is and who the people are. Costumes should be clothing and look lived-in to the degree that makes sense for the character.
A few notes on ‘the woman in white’ — popular imagination has cast Emily Dickinson as a romantic recluse who always wore white dresses, but the film doesn’t go there. The kernel of truth in the myth is that the only item of clothing of Dickinson’s that survives today is a simple white wrapper or housedress from the end of her life, in the 1870s-80s, that is indeed white. It’s been on display at various museums since the 1940s. Dickinson did wear some white, especially later in her life, and she was buried in white, but that’s about it. For the film, this extant gown is reproduced nicely.
Are you a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Have you seen A Quiet Passion?