Dispatch from Berlinale–'A Quiet Passion'

A film about the life of Emily Dickinson evokes what it meant to see life through the poet's twin obsessions with mortality and eternity.
Dispatch from Berlinale–'A Quiet Passion'
Image: Johan Voets / A Quiet Passion Ltd/Hurricane Films 2016
Emma Bell in 'A Quiet Passion'

“Do you wish to come to God and be saved?”

At the start of Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion, a group of young women stand in a cluster, submitting to questioning en masse from a stern woman at the front. We are at Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1848, and the headmistress demands that the young women who wish to come to God move to her right, while the others move to the left. (Sheep and goats, indeed.)

One young woman remains in the center of the room: Emily Dickinson.

She is not sure about her soul, feels no belief, and thus refuses to compromise and risk lying to God about her faith, even in a room full of expectant eyes. Soon she’s collected by her family and brought home to Amherst, and a quiet life of deep passion begins.

The real Emily Dickinson is a figure of mystery and intrigue to so many people; in a press conference during the festival, Cynthia Nixon—who plays the poet for most of A Quiet Passion—noted that she’s a bit of a blank canvas onto which many people project their expectations. The Dickinson of Davies’s film is both deeply sensitive and funny and full of integrity; she’s a loyal friend, daughter, and sister as well as a feisty proponent of the rights of women.

The Dickinson family are tight-knit and a bit eccentric. Both Emily and Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) live at home with their parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), who are complicated: free-thinking and independent, but also overbearing and opinionated. Their brother Austin (Duncan Duff) goes off and gets married, then returns home, but Emily and Vinnie stay at home into middle age, fostering friendships but growing more secluded.

Perhaps the oddest thing about A Quiet Passion ...

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April
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