Emily Dickinson’s struggles to exist in a time when women neither wrote, nor had their independence, formed the basis of a formidable body of poetic work that is today—finally—given the recognition it deserves.
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In the early 19th century, we are introduced to a young Emily (Emma Bell), as she openly resists the religious constraints of her schooling. Returned to her home in Massachusetts, where she lives with her wealthy parents and siblings, she struggles to conform to the expectations of being a young lady.
Her father, who is a lawyer, seems only mildly upset by her rebellion, and is willing to support her love of writing by allowing her to spend her evenings penning poems. He even assists her with her first publication, through a friend he knows. Her work, though, is published anonymously; and its contents have been edited so as to simplify their meaning.
This is but one of many ways her work is undermined, simply due to her gender. As the years go on, Emily (Cynthia Nixon) continues to pursue her art; and, seeing herself as less than desirable to the other sex, she chooses not to pursue marriage, as is expected. She continues to lose close friends to their marriage, but gains a sister in her brother’s wife.
Apart from loneliness, she is also struggling with illness. Her back pain gives way to seizures, and it becomes clear that her time is limited.
A Quiet Passion is an intelligent and witty film that presents a somewhat glossy version of Emily Dickinson’s life. At two hours in length, it takes its time to explore the characters deeply, but may have benefitted from a slightly less indulgent script.
I wanted to feel Emily’s frustrations and root for her smarts, but the seeming decadence of her life and lack of overt oppression somewhat tempered my resolve. Compared to the myriad demands of modern life, Emily’s evenings spent writing, and days spent taking turns through her sunlit gardens, didn’t appear all that terrible to me. I’m sure this cannot be a true reflection of her struggles.
Putting her seemingly mild oppression to one side, the way the film presents its female characters is certainly its strength. Most are shown to be fiercely brilliant women, who have learned to cope with their limited options through humour and cunning. And, thankfully, it delivers many wonderful laughs.
True to director Terence Davies’ style, the film feels decidedly British (despite being focussed on a great American). It’s easy viewing, for an afternoon when time is no pressure; and when wit and a fair amount of drama is your desired indulgence.
Director: Terence Davies
Stars: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff
Runtime: 2 hours 5 mins
Release Date: June 22
Reviewer Rating: 3/5
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