Mawkish, embarrassingly obvious and literal, and vulgar as well, A Quiet Passion is an insult to Emily Dickinson. Terence Davies' bio-pic is handsomely produced, features clever and well-written dialogue, and will impress many people as civilized, if not exactly, entertaining. But it isn't a good movie and don't let fawning reviews to the contrary mislead you about this film. Many people will admire A Quiet Passion for what it is not -- it is most assuredly not a big bucks effects-driven Marvel comics extravaganza. But that doesn't, in itself, give you any assurance that the picture is worth seeing.
A Quiet Passion's failure is particularly painful because Terence Davies' is a fine director and capable of making great films. I particularly admire his documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City, as well The Deep Blue Sea and The Long Day Closes, this latter film a masterpiece in my estimation. Further, A Quiet Passion is not without merits -- indeed, the first half of the film is reasonably effective and well-written. Davies' imagines the Dickinson family as a ultra-witty in the manner of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde -- everyone speaks in sprightly aphorisms and, even, the dullards are highly articulate. The picture begins with a scene establishing Emily Dickinson's non-denominational and highly idiosyncratic religious faith -- it's overly preachy, doesn't bode well for the rest of the movie, and indicative of an irritating aspect of Davies' film: an attempt to make Emily Dickinson an activist feminist and enemy of the patriarchy in the sense that these terms are used today. Some of the early dialogue in the film is very baldly expository and very bad. However, as the film introduces more characters, the script improves and, for forty minutes, the picture is reasonably effective as a portrait of a close, argumentative and hyper-voluble family. Midway, however, the movie begins slip off the rails. First, there is a montage of Civil War casualties that is not well integrated into the film and really beside the point -- is this Emily Dickinson's vision of the Civil War or that of her brother or father or, rather, Davies' arbitrary intervention? Then, Emily gets sick and the film treats us to three scenes of the poet suffering violent seizures, a protracted death scene involving Emily's mother, and, then, an equally protracted and graphic death scene for the heroine herself. This is ruinous to the film, a macabre spectacle that has nothing to do with any of the movie's legitimate subject matter. Worse, these sequences are baldly interpreted by voice-overs of Dickinson poems, most obviously, "Because I could not stop for death..." which accompanies her funeral. Throughout the film, the script suggests that Emily Dickinson's poems bear a cardinal one-to-one relationship to things suffered in her life -- but this is naïve in the extreme and doesn't take into account that fact that Dickinson's verse is highly learned in its allusions and clearly reflects wide, if eccentric, reading. In some respects, the film is reminiscent of a recent movie about John Keats, Bright Star, that was similarly simple-minded and obvious about the relationship between the poet's craft and his (or her) life. Ultimately, Davies' morbid film suggests that the only thing of any real interest in Dickinson's life was her end-stage renal failure -- this does her and her work a disservice. Readers interested in a first-rate and profound film about a poet, his life, and relationship of that life to his verse should watch Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.