A Quiet Passion ★★★★½

This is a very quiet, very intense portrait of the poet Emily Dickinson. I’m a fan of her poems, but have to admit that I didn’t know that much about her life, except that she was reclusive. In the film, we see the close relationships she has with her family and one or two friends (her friend Vryling Buffam is a witty treasure), and her contradictory passion and stillness. The film takes a darker turn in the second half, as her friends and family move on (through marriage or death), gradually leaving her alone.

The film uses music very sparingly (unusual in films now), and takes the even more unusual (but highly effective) route of completely cutting all sound for a few moments at times of high tension for Emily, before fading it back in. It provides a kind of auditory shortcut to symbolise her focus and intensity, and for me expresses the contained power of her poems very well, like an indrawn breath.

Speaking of contained power, I constantly marvel in films and books about the 18th and 19th Century (and before) at women’s fortitude in living with the cultural constraints of the time. I’m amazed that they don’t ‘hulk out’ occasionally and run amok with the sheer frustration of not being able to express themselves or fulfill their potential.

Cynthia Nixon is terrific as Emily, but there is a very strong cast all round, and the cinematography is wonderful.