Emily Dickinson’s Quiet Passion


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.

1846 or 1847 daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, via Wikimedia Commons.

1846 or 1847 daguerrotype, the only authenticated photo of Emily Dickinson, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

1859, Emily Dickinson (left) & Kate Scott Turner, via Wikimedia Commons.

1859 photo, unauthenticated but considered to be Emily Dickinson (left) & friend Kate Scott Turner, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A Quiet Passion (2017)


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.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

Emma Bell plays Emily Dickinson at age 17.

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 Quiet Passion (2017)

Catherine Bailey as Vryling Buffam — she’s a friend whose role in Emily’s life is expanded by the film, & she’s given the most fashionable wardrobe to fit her outgoing personality.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

Miss Buffam seems to be the only woman who wears a bonnet.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia “Vinnie” Dickinson — Emily’s sister. She’s predictably marvelous in this role. Ehle is just an amazingly subtle & flexible actor.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

They both get lovely parasols, but no bonnets when walking out and about.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

Emily’s brother Austin (Duncan Duff) introduces his new bride Susan (Jodhi May) to the family. Susan is wearing a very upholstery-fabric dress, but that’s the Victorians for you.

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.

Emily Dickinson's white dress, c. 1870s-80s.

Emily Dickinson’s white dress, c. 1870s-80s. The original is on display at the Amherst Historical Society, & a replica is on display at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

A Quiet Passion (2017)

The white dress worn by Cynthia Nixon late the movie.


Are you a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Have you seen A Quiet Passion?



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

6 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Yes I am. I was impressed with how much Ms Nixon conveyed Emily’s quiet rebellion, her passion, her snarking comments and how she questioned everything from God to well God. It was done respectfully coming from Emily Dickinson’s questing nature which was given a voice through her poetry.

    I’m also not sure I by the director’s comment about dirt and sweat et al as Dickinson’s family was well off but not rich. She might have changed her garments a couple of times during the day. Englishwoman of the gentry did and so did their American counterparts.

  2. elizacameron

    I haven’t seen it yet, but I did go to see the recent exhibit at the Morgan Library last spring about Emily Dickinson which had several of her dresses and her poetry and letters. It was fantastic to see them up close and personal.

  3. Anne Foster

    The costumes jumped around in the time frame so much, it was hard to figure out what amount of time had passed. 50s collars on late 60s dresses for example. The dance scene early on captured the problem perfectly– each of the women was in a different decade’s style. Dreadful.

  4. Elizabeth Merritt

    I like Dickinson’s work but I’m not a huge fan. I LOVED this movie. It was funny, dramatic, and beautiful.

    As a frock flick, yeah, it left a few things to be desired, but overall I thought the costumes did well at enhancing the characters and they were accurate enough.

  5. Janette

    Finally got around to watching. Like Elizabeth I like Dickinson’s work but am not a huge fan. IT seems rather self indulgent and probably feel the same about the film. Slow, art house films are my “thing” but at times it felt as though there was nothing being said, it was slow simply for the sake of it. The casting was excellent but it was Jennifer Ehle who really shone and left me wondering what became of Vinnie.
    Costumes wise I was pleased to see the women wearing detachable collars, a minor detail unless you have to launder one of those damned dresses. (It used to take me over an hour to iron my very simple 1850s dress), which is often overlooked in more recent period dramas. Nothing jarred so that is a positive.