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A Quiet Passion - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
A Quiet Passion
Directing: A-
Acting: A+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

From the opening scene of A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson is a woman who stands apart -- quite literally: at Amherst Academy, she refuses to make a formal declaration of faith, ultimately standing alone in the middle of a room after groups of her peers have separated to either side, leaving her open to reprimand for perceived insolence. This fierce independence turns out to be a theme to Dickinson's entire life; later she declares, "I will not be forced into piety!"

Make no mistake, though -- as this film presents her, Dickinson was anything but impious. She simply insisted on being pious on her own terms, itself a rather brave thing for a woman of the mid-nineteenth century.

As such, writer-director Terence Davies also takes the film's title rather literally, both Emma Bell (as young Emily Dickinson) and Cynthia Nixon (as the older Emily Dickinson) giving layered performances as a woman consistently poised but barely containing passion. A Quiet Passion is, indeed, a pretty quiet movie -- until the characters reach a breaking point and a bit of yelling occurs. Such are the ways of a repressive society, particularly from the vantage point of women of the era.

This is a film alternately peculiar and brilliant, often both at once. Everyone speaks eloquently, and slowly, as though choosing each word carefully before they pass their lips. It feels a little unnatural at first, until the consistent wit of the dialogue takes over. Many of these people, but especially Emily, have so many memorable lines, it almost becomes hard to keep up with them.

Davies also makes some unique cinematic choices, as in how he makes the transition between the earlier part and the later part of Dickinson's life: starting with her father, the moving on to her brother, then the sister with whom she was very close, Vinnie (a warm and lovely Jennifer Ehle), and then with Emily herself: They all sit for a photo portrait, and then the camera slowly ages them up to the older versions. It sounds odd, perhaps, but it works. Granted, not all of Davies's choices do -- a few times the camera lingers a bit more than necessary. As good as the score may be, I'm not sure we need to watch a man from direct above walk the entire height of a flight of stairs.

As period pieces go, however, A Quiet Passion is indeed in a class of its own, with what feels like authentic production design but an overall idiosyncratic delivery. It's easy to fall in love with the things the people in this movie say, so infused are they with with and insight.

Perhaps most significantly, Cynthia Nixon has never been better, and she is also surrounded by stellar performances. The many challenges of both personality and worldview that Emily Dickinson faced in her time, while also managing to get the fruits of her writing passion published, are expertly conveyed. This was a complex woman leading a complicated life that stood in contrast to other women of her time, and conveying such things so succinctly within the confines of film production is no easy task. Davies and his cast make it easy to trust that everyone involved had deep knowledge of and great care for their subject, and they offer a unique and memorable means of experiencing her equally hopeful and tragic story.

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle offer a rich portrait of Emily Dickinson's life in A QUIET PASSION.

Overall: A-
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