Film Review. A Quiet Passion. Directed by Terence Davies
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the American poet Emily Dickinson appealed as a subject to this particular Director who, like the poet, struggles to get to the truth of the human condition– truth is an idea which Dickinson laboured for in her life and in the poems themselves. The two things were not distinct. Where and what is this truth? Does it lie in the immortality of words? If so which words and at what time? It is easy with the wisdom of hindsight to label the immortals – much harder to spot them in the context of their time and place.
Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) Photo Amherst College Library
The film makes the point that Emily Dickinson had 11 poems published during her lifetime. Immortality comes later. But it comes at a price.
This is not a film about a particular artistic career since it cannot be said that Dickinson had one although she produced a considerable body of work with which mankind has spent the last hundred and fifty years trying to catch up. It is a film of ageing, sickness and death, the role of religion, or not, and trying to make art in the middle of it all. Or rather out of it all. From a devout family, Emily questioned religion openly which led to some antagonistic exchanges both with the Principal of Holyoke Seminary and her father. However the film’s insistence on Emily being the only student in her year to be labelled ‘without hope’ is based on accounts which have since been questioned and which do not accord with Seminary records.
The outdoor scenes of the film take place in the garden of the house at Amherst, Massachusetts (the poet’s home is now a Museum) the beautifully tended garden makes a ravishing backdrop for the scenes of dialogue that take place, especially with the parasol bearing, wide-gowned ladies’ fashions of the mid-19th century. Most of the film’s action takes place indoors, however, quite claustrophobically so for Dickinson herself was reclusive. The film does not really answer the question why, although there is an implication that grief over her father’s death is a root cause.
For me, the film felt overlong and carried its ‘measured’ tones to extreme. The poet’s sister Lavinia (played by Jennifer Ehle) spends her whole life weeping or involved in damage limitation exercises over the offence that Emily’s rigorous truth seeking sometimes causes amongst their neighbours and friends. Other times the two girls are mopping brows or entertaining the vicar’s wife to tea. But this would be no doubt how their lives were lived. There are conversations about gender that feel too modern for the film’s mid-nineteenth century setting while Emily’s friend Vryling Buffam overdoes the witty repartee – no-one speaks like that all the time. In parts the film is quite gruesome to watch, with lengthy scenes of illness and fitting. (This Director has history on not sparing the viewer the unwatchable, as for example scenes of domestic violence in his previous film, Sunset Song).
The problems of the film lie in trying to create a life lived mostly in the mind, at a time when a literary career for a woman or indeed any creative outlet beyond the realm of the domestic, was unlikely. This is where the great sadness of the film lies. There is a poignant moment when Emily is informed by one of the servants that her bread has won second prize in a competition at a local show. ‘Oh.’ She responds. ‘Second prize.’ As a woman she is destined to come second, not even (in her own mind) sufficiently attractive to gain a husband. There is one affecting scene when the poet sitting alone in her room at night, imagines some traditionally dark handsome man, a Mr. Rochester, coming up the stairs and opening the door to her room.
Was it a conscious choice to seek no husband or family or her own? In the film Emily says she could imagine no life away from her family. She knows that to be a wife would restrict her poetry even further, commenting that her father permitted her to write during the night hours which no husband would allow. But did she consciously make the choice beween art and earthly desires or is that an inescapably romantic idea liberally laced with rose-tinted spectacles?
Is 1100 poems a fair exchange for a life lived in seclusion with neither husband nor children? The question cannot be addressed to or answered by a modern feminist. The question can only be addressed to the poet herself. If Dickinson came back would she have an answer even now? Of would she say if there is only immortality on offer, then immortality will have to do.