MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
On DVD and Blu-Ray, Video on Demand, iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Fandango Now and VUDU.
Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle.
The poetry of Emily Dickinson is loved by millions of people, including young adults and aspiring writers. Her poems are short and easily memorized, but also evocative of deeper themes. Two of her primary topics are God and death and yet many of her poems are filled with beautiful images of nature and the joy of creativity. She spent most of her life in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts and was considered to be a bit of an eccentric by her neighbors. Although locally published in a newspaper, fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime, often changed by the editor. She would not gain international fame until after her death.
How are we to think about such a complicated life? A Quiet Passion is that rare biopic that invites the viewer into a new way of understanding Emily Dickinson by depicting her as a member of a loving and prominent family. Her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), is a respected lawyer with strict standards who tries to keep his three spirited adult children under control, but also admires their tendencies to push the limits. Emily has much to say about God but little patience with the church that her family attends. Her love for her sister Vinnie (Ehle) and her best friend Vryling (Catherine Bailey) is the foundation for much clever bantering and wordplay. (The first hour of this film could almost be considered a comedy of manners, in the style of Oscar Wilde or Jane Austen.) Credit writer-director Terrence Davies for a witty screenplay.
The film is a master class in art direction, using the exterior of Dickinson’s Amherst home to set the stage for an authentic recreation of mid-19th century America. Emily’s family lived through the Civil War and was intellectually engaged with the world beyond their neighborhood. In several scenes involving doctors we are reminded that the best medical knowledge of the time was often inadequate to treat many serious conditions; the possibility of death was ever-present.
The entire cast is excellent, with Cynthia Nixon’s depiction of Emily Dickinson unforgettable. Emily is always her own person, willing to challenge the expectations of her time while also struggling with the loneliness that accompanies such uniqueness.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Corinthians 12:17)
I cannot say enough about the beautiful cinematography of this film, including its use of light and shadow and a slowly-moving camera. A Quiet Passion also incorporates the reading of a few of Dickinson’s poems, connecting art to life. This is one of the best films of 2017, largely unseen on neighborhood screens. You owe it to yourself to seek it out. Your local library should be able to reserve a copy of this film for you. You might also want to check out a book of poetry while you’re there.
Five halos: A thoroughly entertaining and moving depiction of the life of Emily Dickinson.
Two pitchforks: Two emotionally intense deathbed scenes; one scene of a sexual liaison, discreetly presented.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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