Movie Review: A Quiet Passion

“A Quiet Passion” – film review of the new bio-pic by Terrence Davies

April 2017

I walked out of the theater and was reminded of the time when, years ago, we’d taken our kids to see the first “Harry Potter” film. My daughter Mira, an avid reader, was indignant. “Mommy, there were at least 40 things I counted that were wrong in that movie!” she proclaimed.

It’s one thing to make changes when you are adapting a novel to the screen and need to compress a multi-hundred page book to a two-hour treatment. It’s another to reduce a real person’s life to a story that works in filmic form.

My biggest problem with the movie was, not surprisingly, Terrence Davies’ treatment of Emily’s relationship with Mabel. It’s not a relationship of mutual respect. It’s not a relationship of artistic exchange. It’s not nuanced, at all.

Davies has them meeting face to face, which, of course, never happened. He shows them engaged in a cat fight:  Emily is furious with Mabel over the relationship with Austin, and furious with Austin for betraying Susan. Mabel is just a slut, albeit a stylish one who can sing Schubert beautifully. There’s some line when Emily and Vinnie are talking about her in which one of them says something about how “all the men are in love with Mabel” and the other says “at least according to her.”  Certainly, Mabel was somewhat self-centered, but there was so much more to her! Viewers of this film would emerge befuddled over how and why it was that Mabel became Emily’s first editor. Or of how and why Mabel would have had any true understanding of Emily, at all.

Other historical inaccuracies abound:  Susan appears after she’s married Austin and as if the rest of the Dickinsons only met her then for the first time (instead of 6 years prior, during which time she had established a very significant friendship with Emily, in particular); Edward, Austin and Vinnie suddenly show up at Mt. Holyoke to take home a very fit-looking Emily who doesn’t seem to have been ill (she was); Charles Wadsworth appears in Amherst and the implication is that Emily and Vinnie heard him preach there, rather than in Philadelphia (which is what actually happened); Mabel doesn’t make an appearance until after Emily Norcross’ death (when we know that she in fact played piano and sang for her.)

The final shots of the movie at Emily’s funeral are particularly, infuriatingly inaccurate. They show the wrong flowers, depict her coffin being put into a carriage (when we know it was carried by the household workers at Emily’s own request) – and buried in Wildwood Cemetery rather than West Cemetery. When an image of Wildwood came up on the screen it was all I could to not to shout out “That is the WRONG place!”

Then there are the sort of bizarre depictions of some of the people that didn’t at all match my sense of them. Vinnie, in particular, was portrayed in ways that didn’t make sense to me. She’s strong, wise and kind in the film, not the sort of easily influenced and in some ways easily manipulated person I believe she actually was.

Davies even invents a proto-feminist gal pal foil for Emily in the person of Vryling Wilder Buffum. Vryling was a real person; she just wasn’t probably a friend of Emily’s. (Born in 1860, Vryling was more a contemporary of Mabel’s. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1881, and taught school in Amherst sometime in the late 1880s). Though we know that Vryling did accompany Lavinia to the 1897 trial, if she knew Emily at all it would only have been at the very end of the poet’s life. But in the film, we see Vryling trading quips, ideas about gender roles and quasi-literary one-liners with Emily as they stroll around the grounds, exchanging knowing glances and twirling their parasols.

There’s a lot about Emily that’s not in the film, too:  her love of her gardens, her dog Carlo, many of the other important people with whom she met or corresponded. Otis Lord is only mentioned with regard to Austin trying a case in his court in Boston (not Salem).

And then there’s the use of the poems. I guess it’s difficult to figure out how to use poetry well in a film. When Davies has Cynthia Nixon reading poems offscreen it works better than when he shows Emily reciting one in a context in which it surely was not written (like seemingly composing “I’m Nothing, who are you” on the spot as she is handed the infant Ned).

There are some good things about the film. Emily certainly comes across as a woman who knew her own mind and capabilities in a world that wasn’t quite ready for them. The cinematography is gorgeous. I do think Davies got the relationships between Emily and her parents right and you get the sense of how screwed up all three Dickinson kids were because of Edward and Emily N. There’s a lovely opening shot that goes 360 degrees around the drawing room, making you feel how insular the Dickinson family was and how dark (literally and figuratively) was their Victorian world. There’s a Civil War montage that’s a little strange but does make viewers realize how profoundly the war affected even those living so far from the battlefields, in Amherst.

Ultimately, I was reminded of a letter that Jay Leyda wrote to Millicent, in which he said something about how “a totally unhappy Emily Dickinson is so much easier to imagine.” Davies’ Emily conforms to his vision of a fiercely intelligent, somewhat independent Emily whose loyalties to her own family and to her own craft cause her to sequester herself. The Emily Dickinson in this film suddenly appears in a white dress after her mother dies. “Emily, we’re in mourning!” a shocked Vinnie says when Emily opens her door. “I am,” Emily replies.

Terrence Davies alters facts to shape a vision of ED that is understandable in a film. In some cases even those of us who are more in the know will forgive his artistic license because there ARE things about his Emily and his Amherst that are recognizable. But in others, he will not be forgiven because he really is “telling it slant.”

Here is a trailer for the film: