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Movie Review: A Quiet Passion

Saturday, May 20, 2017 - 14:40

Every once in a while, I see a movie because I don't feel like sitting in traffic. I was feeling rather dragged out yesterday after work, and even after my gym workout the traffic app showed red most of the way home, so I pulled up a movie app to see what was showing in the Berkeley/Emeryville area. Not feeling the love for the latest SFF releases, but one of the local art-house type theaters had an intriguing listing for A Quiet Passion, about 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson and starring Cynthia Nixon (as Emily) and Jennifer Ehle (as her sister Lavinia). Well, that sounded like a winner, with the bonus of comfy chairs and a bar-cafe in addition to the usual popcorn stand. How could I lose? Well...

Now it is true that Dickinson's life was not exactly a story of fame, fortune, and glorious literary and personal triumph. She had chronic physical and psychological conditions that overshadowed her entire adult life, including bouts of depression triggered by the deaths of friends and mentors, something akin to agoraphobia, and chronic physical conditions that may have included epilepsy. Her mother was chronically ill for most of Emily's adult life. But this film seems to take delight in emphasizing the miseries and anti-social aspects of Dickinson's life and to downplay her intellectual achievements. We see only a couple glimpses of praise and interest in her poetry from the men (always men) whose respect she desires, and a great deal of minimizing and mean-spirited taunting about it, particularly from her brother Austin.

While the movie passively gives a good depiction of how gender-segregated the social life of an unmarried woman of that era was, it comes close to entirely erasing the elements of romantic friendship that thread through her correspondence and poetry. Her intense friendship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, supported through a voluminous correspondence, is reduced to a quiet confession from Susan that her marriage is troubled by her aversion to sex, later followed by Emily's angry reaction to her brother's extra-marital affair. This version of Emily's story takes the version where her singlehood (in addition to being motivated by her quirks of personality) was due to unhappy attachments to various unavailable men, or to older mentor/father-figures, and to a preoccupation with what she considered to be her physical unattractiveness. (I am agnostic on the question of Dickinson's self-understanding of her affections, but the erasure of the close relationship with Susan Gilbert is not forgivable.)

As the movie progresses (and it runs for slightly over two hours and you feel every minute of that) a combination of moody music, gloomy candlelit settings, long scenes of illness and affliction, and constant bickering interactions with her siblings make you feel that Dickinson as well as the viewer must have been longing for the release of the closing credits.

Pros: Excerpts from Dickinson's poetry are used to good effect in communicating mood and setting. The costuming looks pretty solid, although there were a few outfits that looked badly fitted in the upper torso. Cynthia Nixon does an excellent job of inhabiting the role of Emily DIckinson as depicted in this script.

Cons: The movie makes you wonder why everyone in the 19th century didn't just take to their beds and embrace oblivion in order to get all this dreary business of existence out of the way and move on to salvation. This is the most depressing movie I've seen in a long time, and that includes Lost and Delirious which is so evil I think no one should ever watch it again.

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