“Do you wish to come to God and be saved?”
At the start of Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, a group of young women stand in a cluster, submitting to questioning en masse from a stern woman at the front. We are at Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1848, and the headmistress demands that the young women who wish to come to God move to her right, while the others move to the left. (Sheep and goats, indeed.)
One young woman remains in the center of the room: Emily Dickinson.
She is not sure about her soul, feels no belief, and thus refuses to compromise and risk lying to God about her faith, even in a room full of expectant eyes. Soon she’s collected by her family and brought home to Amherst, and a quiet life of deep passion begins.
The real Emily Dickinson is a figure of mystery and intrigue to so many people; in a press conference during the festival, Cynthia Nixon—who plays the poet for most of A Quiet Passion—noted that she’s a bit of a blank canvas onto which many people project their expectations. The Dickinson of Davies’s film is both deeply sensitive and funny and full of integrity; she’s a loyal friend, daughter, and sister as well as a feisty proponent of the rights of women.
The Dickinson family are tight-knit and a bit eccentric. Both Emily and Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) live at home with their parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), who are complicated: free-thinking and independent, but also overbearing and opinionated. Their brother Austin (Duncan Duff) goes off and gets married, then returns home, but Emily and Vinnie stay at home into middle age, fostering friendships but growing more secluded.
Perhaps the oddest thing about A Quiet Passion is that we don’t see Dickinson writing all that often. One might almost say the film ignores her poetry, except that it lives and breathes everywhere. This is not the story of a poet’s career, especially because most of her work remained unpublished or ignored in her lifetime.
Instead, it’s the sort of biopic that is less about informing or inspiring the viewer and more about evoking the subject’s life. Dickinson’s poetry exists in voiceovers throughout the tale, like pearls strung on a chain, each pristine and luminous. Often, characters speak in a manner that seems unnatural and can’t totally be attributed to the era: eventually, it becomes clear that their aphoristic manner of speech is also modeled on Dickinson’s short, precise lines.
The film grows quieter as it goes on and revisits most of Davies’s favorite themes: the line between true belief and stifling dogmatism; the texture that memory superimposes on the world; an elegiac, lyrical sense that draws the audience into deep emotion. Yet it’s also quite funny, especially near the beginning, when the spirited siblings are teasing their staid, pompously pious aunt.
As I watched, I kept thinking of Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s marvelous film about the life of painter J.M.W. Turner, which spent more time helping us feel what it was to live through Turner’s eyes than just telling us about events in his life. The fact of a biographical film is that we know the protagonist dies eventually, whether onscreen or off, and the melancholy and wistfulness of that fact hovers over the whole film. For a poet obsessed with eternity, hope, and beauty, that’s all the more strong.
Early in the movie, while we’re still wondering what exactly the “passion” of the title will be, the family is seated in the drawing room together in the evening, occupied with quiet activity. The camera spins around the room completely and slowly, taking in the flowers on the table, people crocheting or reading by lamplight—and then, finally, we rest on Dickinson, whose eyes have filled with tears.
There it is. She has encountered the idea of mortality for the first time, the sense that death is a being looming in the future. That becomes her great passion: her poetry is filled with a relationship with death (or Death) that is both fearful and almost erotic. This is underlined by the film’s most striking moment: in aging the younger actors who play the siblings at the film’s start into the older characters, Davies situates them in portraits and morphs their faces into their older selves. The philosophical idea that photographs are eerie in that they are always already images of the dead has, ironically, come alive for us.
That interest in mortality, in death, in the meaning that our always-impending encounter with the afterlife imposes on our lives is the prevailing interest in the film, one that gets coupled continually with faith. And of course, the word "passion" has many meanings, one of which echoes the trials of Jesus leading to his crucifixion, something Davies surely had in mind here, too.
“This World is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond - ” begins one poem quoted in the film, which continues:
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
If that doesn’t sum up A Quiet Passion—and the experience of faith, life, and beauty that many of us share—then nothing can.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, April 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.