Review: Solitude, abandonment drive ‘A Quiet Passion’

Tom Long
The Detroit News

The sense of isolation that runs through “A Quiet Passion” is both overpowering and all-powerful. It is a self-induced torment that teeters between genius and madness, full of sorrow and fear.

Cynthia Nixon plays the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, who lived through the Civil War and died in 1886, but whose work did not become generally known and celebrated until 1955. She was an obscure eccentric during her own time, an odd spinster who became progressively asocial as she aged.

We first meet Dickinson as a teen (played by Emma Bell) rebelling at a strict Christian school, filled with philosophical questions about her soul’s path. She is soon brought home by her well-to-do, strict, but caring father (Keith Carradine). There she lives with her older brother Austin (Duncan Duff), vivacious and beautiful sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and depressed, fragile mother (Joanna Bacon).

And there she stays, single and indulged her entire life. She is fearful of death and relationships. Everyone leaves — they either die (her father), get married off (a once-spirited friend) or just move on (a married pastor Dickinson becomes infatuated with). Dickinson is in constant fear of motion, of abandonment, of being left alone. Of life.

So she writes poetry, in the middle of the night. Some pieces are published in a local newspaper, but she is so shy about human contact that she won’t descend a staircase to speak with the paper’s publisher. When a fan stops by to praise her, she won’t even let herself be seen and hurls down tart insults from above.

Writer-director Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea,” “The House of Mirth”) specializes in period pieces and here he captures Dickinson’s miserable isolation and terrible intelligence perfectly. Early on he takes his camera on a slow, circular stroll of the family in its parlor at night, capturing both the style of the time and the quiet solitude of each family member. It sets the stage for Emily’s long withdrawal from the world.

Nixon is ferociously terrified in this role, and she is matched and balanced by Ehle, whose Vinnie is a far shinier creature (although she, too, never married). They are two sides of a coin, with Emily’s side coming down in the darkness. The sad coda to all this is the success of Dickinson’s late night scribblings in the modern world. If only she’d known she wasn’t really alone.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

‘A Quiet Passion’


Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material

Running time: 125 minutes

At The Detroit Film Theatre