Emily Dickinson Embodied by Cynthia Nixon in New Film “A Quiet Passion” (Review)



It’s an absolutely huge week for fans of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson as A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the legendary poet by Terence Davies, comes to Chicago. The latest offering by the highly acclaimed British filmmaker opens at the Music Box Theatre just days after the American Writer’s Museum opened, about five miles away.

Chicago now becomes the perfect time and place for one to brush up on his knowledge of this titanic figure in American literature.

Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City, Amadeus, The Pelican Brief) embodies Dickinson in this film which traces her life from teenage iconoclasm to her lonely reclusive death as an unrecognized artist.

Davies (House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea) is the sole screenwriter of all his films, which often are partially autobiographical. The Liverpool native came to Chicago for a one night screening hosted jointly by the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Poetry Foundation.

In conversing with Davies, at least on the topic of religion, one can see his life story reflected in Dickinson’s skepticism of Christianity.

Doubt in organized religion is a prevailing theme of the film, as are issues of class and gender. The Civil War (back in the headlines a lot lately) is also briefly examined.

However, one of the main morals of this story is just how patriarchal the society of Dickinson’s time was, and how much the firmly entrenched status quo repression of women truly held Emily Dickinson back.

emily dicksinson

A conversation with Davies also enlightens one to the amount of due diligence and extreme devotion he put into researching this project.

Davies read six Emily Dickinson biographies before working on  making this film, and he is a strong believer in her genius. His film definitely fits the portrait of the tortured artist genre, as we see how the poet’s intellectual independence prohibited her genius from being recognized until after her death.

Cynthia Nixon also read a few biographies of Emily Dickinson in order to assume the role and she found the troubled poet’s contradictions interesting, as well as a tremendous opportunity to decide which direction to go with the role.

emily dickinson

Despite meticulously researched effort by Davies, a solid performance by Nixon, and a tremendous supporting cast, “Passion” is simply too much a victim of its own success i.e. the triumph of its dialogue. The words uttered by the characters on screen are so far superior to what the filmgoer is accustomed to (even in movies of this genre) that it keeps the pace static.

The film’s calling card, the timeless poetry and prodigious prose of the characters stalls the film plot from properly moving along.

The viewer feels much more like he is  in the audience of an elaborate, big budget live poetry slam than experiencing a night at the cinema.

There are some scenes where it almost feels like a 19th century Aaron Sorkin has created characters watching each other speak. That said, one can easily enjoy “A Quiet Passion” on a much deeper, and more meaningful level.

emily dickinson

The viewer can instead consume the entire running time by appreciating the  dialogue and monologue, then take the time to reflect on what these moving quotes mean to his or herself. Maybe that is the higher purpose of this Emily Dickinson biopic?

Here’s just a small sampling of some of the more memorable lines in “A Quiet Passion”

-“Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.”

-“We deceive ourselves and then others. It is the worst kind of lie.”

-“The heart asks pleasure first and then excuse from pain.”

-“If I can’t have equality, then I want nothing of love.”

-“It’s easy to be stoic when no one has what you want to offer.”

-“Rigor is no substitute for happiness.”

emily dickinson

It’s a productive and enjoyable exercise for both Emily Dickinson buffs and neophytes. Then after you’ve seen the movie, you can head over to the American Writer’s Museum, where you can receive more Dickinson edification.

The film opens theatrically on May 19th at The Music Box Theatre located at 3733 North Southport Ave.

A Music Box Films release 126 min | Belgium, United Kingdom | 2016 | PG-13 | Budget estimated 7,000,000 Euro| metacritic score 78 | Rotten Tomatoes score 93% fresh rating, 51% audience favorability score |

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, partnered with FOX Sports Engage Network. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com, Chicago Tribune.com and Bold, currently contributes to WGN CLTV and KOZN

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