A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion

2017, PG-13, 125 min. Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 5, 2017

Was Emily Dickinson’s home life – to which the poet restricted herself in the last years of her life – a comfort or a curse? A masterful early scene in British filmmaker Terence Davies’ biographical sketch suggests it was a little bit of both. The camera starts on Emily (Bell), in her late teens, as she fondly looks around the family drawing room. The camera slowly sweeps 360 degrees, or the circumference of a clock, revealing what Emily sees: the kerosene lamps, the crackling fireplace, her sister bent over needlepoint, her mother gazing mournfully into the distance, and other family members in various states of industry and boredom. The camera concludes on Emily again, her face now stricken. Are the walls closing in, or is that a trick of the lamplight? Did she shudder at the sound of the clock chiming? Soon after, as the Dickinson family all sit for daguerreotype portraits, Davies uses a seamless bit of digital wizardry to transition his young actors into their older counterparts. The effect of these two scenes together is powerfully demonstrative – of how the days can move so slowly, and whole years fly by in a blink.

Davies’ novel approach to communicating time’s passage isn’t always so elegant; the looming Civil War is introduced in a scene that goes from zero to 60, and the war itself is dispatched mawkishly in a series of full-color stills of carnage and the American flag, the worse for wear, flapping in the wind. And so subtly conveyed are the more dramatic transitions in a confined life that Dickinson novitiates might not immediately grasp their importance – of Emily’s permanent switch to wearing white all the time, or of a growing reclusiveness that eventually manifests in a reluctance to leave even her room. Still, that late dawning on the viewer is itself a mimic of the way a quirk can turn to habit and harden in our lives.

The director of such literary adaptations as Sunset Song, The Deep Blue Sea, and The House of Mirth, Davies continues to feel right at home with the period piece (although this era is especially severe – in clothing and hair, the limits to what women can do, the amount of discussion over the soul’s chances at eternal damnation), and with gifting a great role to an actress. Emily is played as an adult by the perfectly cast Cynthia Nixon; her journey from feistiness to embitterment is uneasy to watch, and her end-of-life seizures downright gruesome. Jennifer Ehle is also deeply moving as her devoted sister Vinnie, as is Keith Carradine, born to wear muttonchops, as her father, but some of the other actors struggle with the formal dialogue and a convincing American accent. A Quiet Passion’s manneredness overwhelmed me at times, but it is very effective – chilling, even – in its charting of one woman’s disappointed journey to the rhetorical coda of her own life: “Why has the world become so ugly?”

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Terence Davies Films
The closeted life of British World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon

Steve Davis, June 3, 2022

Sunset Song
A woman comes of age in this rugged Scottish saga set in the early 1900s

Marjorie Baumgarten, June 3, 2016

More by Kimberley Jones
Abya Yala: The Story Behind the Photos
Abya Yala: The Story Behind the Photos

Sept. 29, 2023

Fair Play
Office romance and intrigue intersect for tension with little weight

Sept. 29, 2023


A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle