There are many Emilys in this film, as she, like Whitman, contained multitudes. The first one we meet is the schoolgirl Emily, steadfastly refusing to declare religious conversion and a born again, saved, experience. This Emily is played by Emma Bell, who, then, in a subsequent sequence of family portraits subtly ages and becomes Cynthia Nixon, who performs the star turns of acting as the adult Emily Dickinson.
|Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie.|
I saw the film months ago but the thoughts it provoked about the poet and the times in which she lived, the people among whom she passed her passionate, and often painful life -- exterior and interior -- remain riverlets winding through my ongoing mental preoccupations.
A Quiet Passion is an exquisite film, with the exception of allowing Mabel Todd Loomis to actually see the poet, which she never did. But here the meeting is, in a terrible, at the pitch of highest plausible drama, a moment when Austin, Emily’s brother, is discovered by her in – not flagrante, exactly – but in a passionately incriminating intimacy -- in hers and Vinnie's home! This is so many violations simultaneously that the infuriated Emily literally spits out the words (not the first time in this family drama, in which all members can and do give as good as they get, when these terrible moments blaze up between them. This is not Austin's house, he's betraying Susan, her sister-in-law, whom Emily and the whole family love tenderly, and -- Austin has fallen from the place of perfection and moral arbiter where Emily and the family had so fondly placed him.
Emily's life is so much about family. The Dickinsons are tied and bonded as closely in affection and intelligence as a family can be. As we know, not all is smooth all the time. The fallings out are passionate and the barbs thrown are cruel and to the exact bulls eye, just because they do know and love each other so well, and are such equals in passion and self-knowledge. Yet, except for Austin's Grand Treachery, whenever the members fall out, once the poison has erupted, they are horrified, not with the person toward whom the violence was directed, but at themselves. They are horrified by themselves, and see where they are unfair, and wrong, and always apologize sincerely, at once, and are ashamed. The apologies are always accepted.
These days I miss that old puritan tradition of constant examination of soul, the authentic desire to be honest with God, to care at least as carefully for the soul as the bank account, and that death and the after life are always in mind. Abigail Adams was fully possessed by this, but like Emily, it never interfered with her sharpness of intelligence and commentary.
In this film the trajectory of the poet's mind is beautifully evoked over time. Death takes one to God, who is the beloved passionate anonymous Byronic lover eagerly awaited, but whom never quite enters the bedroom, the father, the Brontëan brother, like life, death, infinity and heaven, merging one into another. The Brontës' novels, Wuthering Heights particularly, and Jane Eyre, with whose narrator, Emily closely identifies, painfully convinced that she, like Jane, is unblessed by the beauty and charms that attract men's love, while passionately desiring it -- and equally, believing that love is death for a woman -- are deliriously invoked with delighted consciousness of committing female transgression at every turn in these women's earlier lives.
|Vryling, Emily, Vinnie, happily making fun of men who take themselves so seriously while knowing nothing.|
Some have evaluated the dialog in the earlier parts of the film as too much admiration for Jane Austen – which writer, importantly, unlike the Brontës and George Eliot -- Dickinson did not like. or admire. Thus, intelligently, throughout the film, admiration of the Brontës is expressed by many of female characters. Perhaps these critics got it wrong -- they are English after all, and there are areas of the trans-Atlantic mind that seem to remain forever veiled to their sight. All these sharp, quick quips and ripostes among Emily, her sister, Vinnie, and their friend, Vryling Buffam, are accompanied by continual happy prolonged laughter. They are happy young women, thoroughly in love with each other’s intelligence, personalities, characters and language brilliance. Their pleasure in each other is so gracefully expressed by the actors (the cast is splendid even beyond the tour de force that Cynthia Nixon achieves), that the viewer participates equally in their pleasure.
|After Buffam's marriage vows; Emily does not join the other guests outside the church congratulating the newly married couple.|
This joy begins to fade with death of friends and relatives, and particularly the marriage of her beloved friend Vryling Buffam's religious conversion, and her subsequent marriage a pastor. Thereafter the friendship, as Emily feared, disappears entirely. It may be Emily deliberately disappeared the friendship, as she was as passionately convinced that marriage had to destroy the only kind of friendship that she could sustain, that of passionate intimacy. Now too disappears the laughter, as her partner in transgressive wit enters the grave of wife and motherhood. Her terrible loneliness begins to manifest, chosen as deliberately out of anger with the world she's been given, her place in it as a woman, as an artist with a soul as large as the universe, physical maladies and pain, and -- a mind that cannot be contained within a single world, much less house and garden, and which possesses an intimate, passionate relationship with God.
I do wish the film had included the witnessed incident of Emily drowning unwanted newborn kittens in a bucket of water. I had to make due with another acclaimed incident of her father, while waiting to be served his dinner, calmly complaining his plate is not quite clean, and she calmly picking up the plate to smash it into pieces against the table. She explains, “Now it does not matter.”
Most of all though, I wish the film makers had resisted and not manufactured an event between Emily and Mabel Todd Loomis, her brother's adulterous lover, and the woman who took over Emily after her death and created out of whole cloth the phony mythology of the eternal Maid of Amherst, and herself as the only intimate of the poet. Loomis never saw Emily in the flesh, never exchanged a word with her, and never got a glimpse of her poems. She stole them from Emily's sister, Vinnie, then went on tour 'acting' Emily, and reading her poems, which bowdlerized to fit better with her phony Emily. Which is a 19th century tale in itself!
Nevertheless, in terms of Emily herself, and her family, these decades of the 19th century from the 1830's to post the War of the Rebellion, the picture of the finest and most progressive and liberal minds of New England, and thus of our nation, and just how much passion and imagination fueled such minds -- there's never been a film like this. It is joy to watch from the first scene, to the last.
Though all the actors are superb, in the end, such a film succeeds or fails according the actor who is Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon is magnificent. No one can doubt that the poet would be in heaven to see herself as Nixon has portrayed her. Poetry is anything but a quiet passion.