Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: No
2016, 125 min., Color
Biographical drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Music Box Films
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

Here’s a revealing statistic:  At Rotten Tomatoes, 92 percent of critics gave A Quiet Passion a “fresh” rating, while only 52 percent of readers liked it.

There have been a lot of very good films made about writers and writing—films like Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie/Peter Pan), Becoming Jane (Austen), Saving Mr. Banks (P.L. Travers/Mary Poppins), or the fictional Finding Forrester, the latter inspired by the reclusive J.D. Salinger. They make for good family dramas because unless the writer is Ernest Hemingway they’re usually pretty tame, tied to an internal drive for success and full of advice that older children can certainly glean.

A Quiet Passion—the story of American poet Emily Dickinson—had the potential to be all that plus a model of enlightened feminism. But while older fans of literature may still warm to this 2016 film despite its flaws, I don’t see it working very well with family audiences.

Let’s talk about the positives, first. The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is exquisite and, coupled with Terence Davies’ brooding direction, creates a moody, atmospheric film that mirrors poet Emily Dickinson’s inner landscape: more trapped by societal limitations than freed by her own rebellions, more able to think than to feel, more dolorous than full of delight, and more plagued by doubt than most women her age—doubt over her writing, her attractiveness, her religious convictions, and her ability to overcome a shyness so extreme that she won’t even speak with non-family callers face to face.

Davies, who is such a fan of poetry that he memorized T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and rereads them every few months, wrote the screenplay based on biographies he read and decided to showcase the poetry. One of the film’s strengths is that we hear the poems read in voiceover after an event that likely inspired them, or at least is thematically compatible. The poems lend a richness to the production that would have been lacking had Davies gone another direction, and a nice bonus feature is an assortment of those poems read by Davies and lead actress Cynthia Nixon.

Nixon, of Sex and the City fame, is another of the film’s strengths. Casting her as the older Emily Dickinson was nothing short of inspired. Nixon is the Dickinson we think we know after reading the poems, and she manages to convey most of the poet’s complex and often conflicted feelings.

That’s quite a contrast from the outgoing teenager we meet in Young Emily (played by Emma Bell), who seems perky and contemporary. How can someone so normal seeming at that age turn so reclusive and even paranoid? The film never gives a clue, so it seems instead like a contradiction. So is the invented best friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), whose inflections seem as modern as can be rather than something out of the Civil War era, though she speaks in the same sort of archaic prose as all the other characters. It’s like listening to Fonzie doing Shakespeare, and about as believable as a scene in which a publisher comes to the Dickinson Homestead and growls at her because she won’t come down to talk to him.

Then there’s Terence Davies’ direction, which seems influenced by the old Masterpiece Theatre series before shows like I, Claudius and Downton Abbey reinvigorated the format—which is to say, it’s ponderously slow-moving and celebrates austerity the way the old Alistair Cooke-introduced series did. Family audiences will find it painfully slow-moving. Meanwhile, the rapid-fire dialogue—as witty as it may be—is unconvincing, sounding like the transcripts of actual letters rather than speech. As Twain proved with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a difference between the way people write and the way people speak.

Several deaths occur in the novel, and Dickinson rebuffs attempts to coax her to come downstairs or to leave the house and actually live life rather than writing philosophically about it. The characters in this film don’t smile a lot, and because there’s so much in the way of sickness and death and Dickinson’s growing orneriness, instead of Pride and Prejudice it feels like Death and Disagreeableness. There are more family-friendly writer biographies out there, but for lovers of literature it’s still a good film to watch—especially since the crew began shooting in Belgium with interiors reconstructed from the Dickinson Homestead, then shifted to America to actually film at the Emily Dickinson Museum and Dickinson Homestead. There are a lot of good things happening here—just not for the typical family wanting to enjoy a film together.

Language: Nothing offensive
Sex: Two fully clothed people kissing in an implied adulterous situation
Violence: A character has seizures
Adult situations: Nothing objectionable
Takeaway: Dickinson was a terrific poet, and Nixon really brings her to life, however dismal that life was

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