A Quiet Passion is a thought-provoking film that sheds light on portions of Emily Dickinson’s life. The movie opens at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts where Emily is already going against the grain. Her headmistress reminds her that “She is alone in her rebellion.”
Her family comes to take her home to Amherst. The rest of the film is set in the house with her austere father, Edward, her brother Austin and her loving sister Vinny. All of them are daily affected by Emily’s headstrong ways.
Emily, her mother, is secluded and rarely seen. It is unclear why she is so glum and unhappy. However, when Austin brings home his intended, Susan, the mother comes downstairs which surprises the others.
The low lighting and slow action of the film seem to imply that there is a general tone of depression. Perhaps, the outbreak of the Civil War contributes to the feelings of heaviness. Young Austin wants to join the armed forces, but his father forbids it and makes him stay behind and work as his law partner.
Emily resents her position as a woman of the 1800’s because of her limited mobility and she tells Austin that he should spend one day as a woman. She finds solace in her writing and gets permission from her father to write in the wee hours of the morning while the world is sleeping.
A few of her poems are published during her lifetime and she stitches her poems together into small booklets. Some are recited in the background while key events of her life unfold. For example, when she is holding Austin and Susan’s newborn son, she recites “I’m Nobody! Who Are You? (260)”
Vinny, her amiable sister, dutifully remains by her side; even when Emily is behaving badly. They are sparing partners and Vinny tells her when she is out of line or being unnecessarily harsh to others. Her father also corrects her on a number of occasions. He probably understood her private frustrations as a woman with an inquisitive mind in the 19th century.
Emily equated all partings to a form of death. She grieved when friends moved away or got married and had a hard time letting go and saying goodbye. After her father passes, she goes into her room for about three days without eating. She finally emerges wearing the famous white dress though others are still wearing black to show that they are in mourning. This is the beginning of her reclusive lifestyle and the white linen dress becomes her daily attire.
When others visit her, she speaks to them from upstairs and out of view. She had said that she did not feel as attractive as Austin or Vinny, and this may have contributed to her eventual hibernation. But, the mother also isolated herself and as the saying goes, “The apple does not fall too far from the tree.”
The movie spends an inordinate amount of time on Emily’s struggle with Bright’s disease. Some of the scenes are highly disturbing as she has convulsions and epileptic seizures before succumbing to death at the age of 55. Austin, Susan and Vinny surround her and the movie closes with her funeral procession while she can be heard reciting the poem, “I Could Not Stop for Death So He Kindly Stopped for Me (479).”
The movie is worth seeing for those scholars who like all things Emily; however, she had to have had more good days. She could have been shown working in her garden or cooking some of her favorite dishes. It is said that she was a great cook. Or she could have been seen lowering her famous basket of gingerbread down to the neighborhood children.
The writer-director, Terence Davies, did in-depth research which was revealed through the credits but surely there were sunnier days in the life of this renowned American poet. Yet, her life still intrigues many and she undoubtedly meant it when she wrote “And I choose, just a crown.”
Lynn M. May 27, 2017
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