You have not lost your hearing. The sound doesn’t need to be adjusted. You’re getting a little quiet as “A Quiet Passion” begins. Quiet punctuates this passionate portrait of one of poetry’s influential protagonists: Emily Dickinson. Director Terence Davies makes “A Quiet Passion” a meditation on both silence and solitude, and the price of docility in women who did not feel as other’s do. Do not dismiss this as a chick-flick; “A Quiet Passion” speaks to those who would rebel against expectations.
From the beginning, you quickly understand how stubborn and independent-minded this Emily Dickinson was. When we first meet her, she has come to the end of her second semester. In the middle of a cluster of women, she stands. The head mistress has asked the students to divide themselves up, “Some of you will remain here to complete your education; some of you will go out into the world and as is my custom, I put to you a question of the utmost importance which concerns your spiritual well being: Do you wish to come to God and be saved? Those of you who wish to be Christian and saved will move to my right. Those who remain and hope to be saved will move to my left.”
Surprised to see one woman standing alone before her, the head mistress interrogates the woman we learn is Emily, “Have you said your prayers? Do I understand you correctly? Do you believe that your creator is indifferent to your sins?”
Without even a quaver in her voice, Emily allows, “I am not even awakened yet and how should I repent?” She admits, “I am somewhat troubled to be sure” but calmly states, “My feelings are all indefinite” because “I have no sense of my sins and how can I.” Yet Emily confesses, “I wish I could feel as others do.”
The teacher then replies, “The true question is: Are you in the arc of safety?” and then admonishes, “I feel you are alone in your rebellion Miss Dickinson.” And one senses quickly, Emily will always be alone. This young Emily (Emma Bell) finds her time at this seminary is marred by “an acute case of evangelism” she tells her father, Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine).
Edward has an almost supernatural calm, accepting some of Emily’s more precocious actions without a crease in his intelligent brow. A complaint about a dirty dish is answered by Emily dropping the dish to break on the floor. He doesn’t not treasure docility because it “is too much like slavery.”
A visiting aunt (Annette Badland), becomes the subject of Emily’s wordplay. Although Emily confides to her sister Vinnie (Rose Williams as the younger and Jennifer Ehle as an adult) how dull she finds the woman’s verse, Emily’s critique is: “I’m sure your verse is equal to your talent.”
In her defense, Aunt Elizabeth responds, “If I were clever enough, I’d probably take offense to that dubious compliment.”
Not willing to give up, Emily replies, “All the best compliments are dubious that’s part of their charm.”
Emily understand that she is not pretty. She knew what to expect if she should marry and although Vinnie was the pretty one, neither did. Emily lived during an era when the belief was that “women cannot create the permanent treasures of literature” and yet she wishes to write because “Poems are my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all.” While her father might permit her to write in the quiet early morning, a husband would certainly change matters. “My father allows it; no husband will,” she plainly tells her brother’s wife.
Although sheltered from outside events, while her brother Austin wishes to join the Union soldiers in the Civil War, Emily writes about the deaths and boys who will not return. We hear her poetry in voiceover to images of the casualties of war. And yet when an event at Gettysburg is recounted for Emily, we hear how the two-hour speech of Edward Everett was much admired, but how the short dedicatory of the President Abraham Lincoln was not.
Emily’s brother, Austin comments Lincoln was “shocking in his brevity, not memorable” but also most of the attendees were “looking for breakfast or trying to find souvenirs of the battle” that had been fought in July of 1863 (while the reburial dedication was on 19 November 1963).
Emily declares that all these men had died “to end slavery which should never have flourished in this country in the first place” and as the conversation progresses, Austin grumbles that this is not a conversation about men and women. Emily replies, “Any argument about gender is war because that too is slavery.” She dares Austin, “Live as a woman for a week and you will find it neither congenial nor trivial.”
At this point, some audience members will likely recall the double tale of two email signatures when Martin R. Schneider signed his work emails as Nicole Hallberg and found out how difficult it is to be a woman. Or, how much easier Hallberg found it was to be a man. If write while female is a problem now, imagine how it was then.
Even when Emily Dickinson’s genius was recognized, it was often corrected to better suit tastes (even posthumously by the mistress of her brother), but in “A Quiet Passion” this point is simplified into an episode where Emily queries a publisher about how he changed her punctuation.
For Austin, “a man must make his way in the world, he cannot be merely decorous.” Emily knows she will never be a decoration, even if she wanted to do so. As she flatly states, “It’s easy to be stoic when no one wants what you have to offer.” And as she grew older and was somewhat celebrated for the few poems that were published during her lifetime, she became more reclusive, sometimes seeing but not allowing herself to be seen.
When the young and beautiful Mr. Henry Emmons (Stefan Menaul) comes to visit, Emily explains her unwillingness to speak with him face-to-face, “because he is so beautiful and I am not beautiful enough,” she demures, “I am best heard and not seen.”
Some scholars theorize that love might have come to Emily, but that’s not of particular interest to Davies. His Emily declares, “If I cannot be equal then I want nothing of love.”
The woman who played the red-haired career-minded lawyer Miranda Hobbes on HBO’s “Sex and the City” might not be your first choice to play Dickinson, but Cynthia Nixon, 51, provides Dickinson with a suppressed burning passion and an unleashed intelligence. Perhaps had the times permitted, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), like Hobbes, might have gone to Harvard and been a legal wordsmith. Harvard didn’t have any women students until 1879 when the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women was established (and would later become Radcliffe, one of the seven sisters).
One might be tempted to think the troubles Emily Dickinson faced as a woman a thing of the distant past. Women no longer have to publish under male pseudonyms. That is true. Yet Martin R. Schneider and Nicole Hallberg‘s experiment shows that male writers are given different considerations than female writers in the business world.
In the world of creative writing, prejudice seems to linger as well. In 2010, the New Republic reported that The New York Times reviewed more fiction by men. The bylines are also more likely to be male. Last year the New Republic published an article (“Women Write About Family, Men Write about War“) that suggested women authors are still stereotypes in book reviews.
In 2017, sexist experiences inspired the author of “Chocolat” (the novel that upon which 2000 Juliette Binoche-Johnny Depp film was based) to start the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear. Hundreds of years after Dickinson, women may write, but they are not judged solely by their words.
Terence Davies asks us to consider the choices that Emily Dickinson had as a writer, as a woman, as an intelligent human being and as someone who not only dared to think differently, but dared to be alone in her rebellion. If you can dismiss the intensely intelligent “A Quiet Passion” as a chick flick, then you may have missed your own opportunity for passionate rebellion.
Luckily, not all of Dickinson’s papers were destroyed. “I will be silent in my rebellion and no one will know,” she says in the film, opining, “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me.” Yet people do know Dickinson today, people are still inspired and write to her, and with Davies’ film perhaps even more shall have that opportunity.