A Quiet Passion Review: Sticking to the Classics

Photo Credit:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2392830/mediaviewer/rm3958245888

A Quiet Passion is so unapologetically an old-fashioned biopic. When this genre is parodied, the easiest cliches to take jabs at are all present aplenty in Terence Davies’ aptly subdued portrait of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon). That is to say, watching this film involves a lot of eye rolling.

But the film is ambitious in how it pays tribute to the literary legend. The script is laden with Dickinson’s poems relayed through Nixon’s gentle voiceovers, while the dialogue-heavy script doesn’t shy away from the mid-late 19th century vernacular. That means that emotions are literally overstated with words, even if the actors are giving understated performances. It’s a characterization that’s hard on the actors, with Jennifer Ehle as Dickinson’s sister making the most of the restrained emotions. Nixon doesn’t quite get to do the same thanks to Dickinson’s notoriously rebellious nature, but she plays the part week enough.

The film follows the poet primarily through her later years, as the pressures bestowed on 19th century women and her insecurities really start to take their toll. Battling limited success and lacking the confidence to let a suitor see her face, Nixon’s Dickinson is a series of cracks that grow wider and wider as the film goes on.

Yet, while sticking to biopic conventions, A Quiet Passion is not so quietly at war with itself. The aesthetic benefits of mostly natural lighting aside, the film boasts few justifications for bringing something this dialogue heavy to the screen rather than the stage. The film settles its war by the end, displaying a few key moments of intimacy in a raw realism stage could never come close to, but waiting for these moments can be a bit of a chore for those who expect this visual medium to communicate, well, more visually.

But for what it’s worth, cliches and all, A Quiet Passion manages to capture a piece of this legend’s life in a way that is both emotional and restrained by the period’s social standards. The film medium begs a little more than what we’re given here, but for some, this portrait, living up to its title as if the world depended on it, may be enough. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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