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In A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson is a saint for the uncertain

The poet’s life comes alive in the film, which harbors a double entendre in its title.

A Quiet Passion
A Quiet Passion
Music Box Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

A Quiet Passion is a perplexing and challenging film, crafted without the traditional guardrails that guide most biographical movies — dates, times, major accomplishments, etc. Time slips away in the film almost imperceptibly, and the narrative arc doesn’t yield easily to the viewer.

Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson, whose poetry and life is a perfect match for the signature style of director Terence Davies: rich in detail, deeply enigmatic, and weighed down with a kind of sparkling, joy-tinged sorrow.

And it makes perfect sense that the film is finally being released in the US this week, of all weeks; the title, I’ve come to realize, is a double entendre. The “passion” of A Quiet Passion has two meanings: one to do with Emily’s preoccupation, and one to do with her lifelong struggle for freedom.

This week, adherents of two major religions celebrate pivotal holidays, both of which celebrate life wrested away from death’s grasp. Celebrating Passover, Jews remember the ancient story of how their ancestors — enslaved for centuries in Egypt — were spared by the Angel of Death sent to kill the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, the 10th and final plague visited on the nation by God for refusing to free his people.

And celebrating the days leading up to Easter (observed this week by Christians in the Western tradition), worshippers remember not just Christ’s resurrection but also what’s referred to as his passion: the days of sadness, brutality, and betrayal he endured on his way to his death. (As reported in the gospel of Mark, the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples was a meal to commemorate Passover, so in the minds of many Christians, the two holidays are linked.)

Both holidays are celebrated every year, even by the only mildly observant of both faiths. In the process, life is honored, and a great hope for freedom and the future is revisited.

But those celebrations are inflected with some unease. Resurrection can only follow death. Deliverance can only follow enslavement. And we find ourselves in the same place, year after year, observing the same rituals, retelling the same stories, seeing the same faces, cycling on through time. That means that to celebrate Passover or Easter is to remember death and suffering.

And so, a sense of our humanity is built into the holidays. Each year we remember the previous years, and we think about how the world has changed, and how we have changed with it. There are few better ways to be reminded of your mortality than to observe religious holidays.

A Quiet Passion is similarly obsessed with mortality and enslavement, and with the soul’s struggle to break free from the bonds placed on it by others, and also by the self. This is a passionate struggle — and it also calls to mind to the religious meaning of “passion.”

In A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson is a fiery, passionate enigma

A Quiet Passion is a film obsessed with mortality, eternity, and the passage of time. In the very first scene, Emily is forced into a public confrontation with the state of her immortal soul by a stern schoolmistress. She remains preoccupied with the state of her soul throughout the movie, which relies on visual cues to clue us into the passage of time, rather than marking time with dates (aside from the Civil War). At one point, the characters’ faces visibly morph as they sit for portraits, aging by decades.

The interminable nature of time, and the way we change, make errors, grow older, commit sins, repent, and suffer, are this ambitious film’s subject, more than the poet herself.

Cynthia Nixon and Keith Carradine in A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon and Keith Carradine in A Quiet Passion.
Music Box Films

Yet Emily is our conduit, and she is an enigma — always changing, but steadfast. She’s certain only of two things: her eternal soul and its uncertain resting place. Her religious beliefs extend to a faith in some kind of afterlife, but she waffles on God’s existence, only hoping that when she dies her soul will go either to him or to the void, eternally free.

This is not the way nice women of 19th-century Amherst thought or spoke, but Emily is unbending. The Emily of A Quiet Passion is no saint, by conventional standards. Surrounded by devout people of faith, she is only certain of her uncertainty, and unwilling to pretend piety she doesn’t feel. She is often harsh and unyielding.

Speaking with a vivacious friend prone to voicing shocking opinions, Emily calls her “radical.” But her friend rebuffs, admitting she’ll eventually settle down to keep the peace. Emily, though, has no such plans. As her life goes on, she grows quieter and more reclusive, but at the same time bolder and more outspoken, and more keenly aware of her own failure to live to her own standards.

So Emily is certainly quietly passionate, in keeping with the movie’s title. She lives in her childhood home with her parents and sister for most of her life. A youthful wit and ardor gradually narrows its focus, shifting from marveling at the beauty of art, people, and life to a grimmer point: death. Or Death, as she’d call it. She’d never call that grim; Death was a force she came to see over her lifetime as a kind of liberating lover.

Yet even as she grows older and her world grows smaller, Emily retains the fiery passion of her youth, the need to test all things and hold them up to the light, to name them and define them.

Another meaning of the word “passion” is at play in A Quiet Passion

But the word “passion” also has a second meaning — as a reference to the great suffering of a saint. The term is usually associated with the days before the death of Jesus — the time celebrated by Christians this week. It’s a narrative recounted four times in the Bible and made into some of the finest works of art the Western world has known.

In more broad usage, passion can refer to the turmoil and abuse that the downtrodden experience at the hands of the strong. Martyrs experience a passion before their death. It is, in a sense, what makes them into saints.

This sense of the term makes its way into Davies’s film, with a twist: Davies’s long quarrel with the Catholic Church and organized religion, which suffuses all of his films. When I spoke with him about the film last year, he expressed his wish, which he sees as mirroring Emily’s, that he could simply believe in God and the afterlife.

But, he said, “If you imagine her, sitting on a cloud for eternity, strumming some magical tone on a harmonium — give me hell then. They'll have a much better time down there, and they'll have cocktails as well.”

The Dickinsons pray.
The Dickinsons pray.
Music Box Films

The suffering of an uncertain saint, that is Davies’s and Dickinson’s quiet passion. The film even structures the poet’s life in the manner of the stations of the cross, with conversations that seem more aphoristic than conversational, and mark turning points in her journey toward uniting with Death.

Emily experiences seizures and shaking that Davies shoots for extended periods, blurring the line between physical ailment and the kind of raptures experienced by religious mystics. Her poems appear in the film almost always in voiceover, pauses in the story that give us a sense of her soul’s state. They’re also studies in contrast: She writes of her ecstasy, when we’ve rarely seen it on screen. The poems are a cleansing breath. Though she yearns for recognition and for readers, the poems are intended first and foremost for Emily’s soul.

And when she does finally die — dressed in all white, laid out on her bed — Emily is the picture of an angel, though we know she is not. She is, though, a martyr of a sort, purified through suffering in body and in spirit. Her passion has been a quiet one, but it resonates loudly.

Emily Dickinson is a modern saint for the uncertain

A Quiet Passion is a portrait (both visually and narratively) of the kind of saint most modern people can understand: one who is certain of her uncertainty, and longing to walk the right path. Like last year’s searing Silence, it is a film designed not to bolster the settled, but to unnerve them, to give little comfort and linger long past its end.

Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion.
Music Box Films

Released this week, it makes vital sense. Jews have never forgotten suffering, the times when the strong sought to wipe them off the face of the earth. Christians watched on Palm Sunday, the start to the week, as bombs in a church in Egypt killed 21 of their brethren — a sobering reminder of what real suffering looks like, and mirrored in other acts of violence against Christians as well as those of other religions around the world. It is a hard time to talk about religion and violence, and a hard time to reckon with its many forms.

Compared to all this, Emily Dickinson’s life looks simple: a plain girl in a comfortable house in pleasant New England. But as a kind of patron saint of the uncertain, those thrown into turmoil by remembering the state of the world — and our own mortality — Emily’s quiet passion is a hard, lingering archetype. And it makes for the right film for a week of hope shot through with grief.

A Quiet Passion opens in theaters on April 14.