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“a quiet passion” movie review

A Quiet Passion

As a writer, I’ve always been enamored with Emily Dickinson. so I was really looking forward to learning more about the reclusive poet — and her beloved Newfoundland, Carlo — in A Quiet Passion.

Well — spoiler alert — Carlo never appears in the movie, which pretty much ruined it for me and made me wonder just how much, uh, poetic license was taken by director Terence Davies about her life.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But I do think the dog-loving Emily would agree.

There’s no question that Cynthia Nixon is outstanding, showing us the Emily Dickinson we always hoped for: not a mousy wallflower but a fiery, rebellious woman who was complex and smart and surprisingly funny. If she were alive today, she’d be wearing a pussy hat even though she might not join the march.

We’d all want to be her friend.

My poet husband and I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, which starts with a young Emily at boarding school, refusing to go along with her teacher’s command for the students to “come to God and be saved.” She questions her, sincerely wanting to understand more, but ends up leaving the school, “suffering from evangelism.”

It becomes clear early on that Emily’s religion is poetry. She pursues it like a lover, with the fervor of a zealot. She asks her father for permission to stay up and write in the middle of the night, which he easily grants. Emily later admits that she probably won’t ever marry because a husband would never go along with that.

Emily wants her work to be appreciated while she is alive, and she is crushed when a newspaper editor writes, “Women, I fear, can not create the permanent treasures of literature.” Obviously, the man was an idiot.

When her father complains, “This plate is dirty,” Emily matter-of-factly smashes it to smithereens and announces, “It’s dirty no longer.”

It’s impossible not to fangirl this Emily Dickinson, about whom her friend says, “You are a strange creature with more depth than any of us.”

When she holds her infant nephew and coos, “I’m nobody! Who are you?” to him, her famous poem takes on a whole new delightful twist.

A Quiet Passion - Emily Dickinson

Nixon recites much of Dickinson’s poetry in the movie, and it’s so beautiful, you can understand why she admits, “Poems are my solace for the eternity that surrounds us.”

Eternity, a.k.a. death is a big subject for Emily Dickinson. It’s probably the reason I didn’t enjoy watching the second half of the movie. Granted, this was her life — she had to deal with the loss of her beloved parents and then she suffered from a fatal kidney disease herself — but the deathbed scenes are long and drawn out and don’t offer deeper insight into the woman I wanted to get to know better.

I still have questions.

Emily continually puts herself down, saying, “I am a kangaroo amongst the beauties.” Why did she feel that way? I just couldn’t understand where that insecurity about her looks came from.

And the first time she falls ill, why didn’t she try to find out what was wrong? Why wouldn’t she ask for help?

And, most importantly, where was the damn dog?


  1. I love Emily Dickinson. One year my father gave me a beautiful book of her poems and inscribed it for me. She means a lot to me – we are like-minded again, Lois!

    I’ll see this movie. The deathbed scene and talk about death, well, I could do without. But I do want to see this for myself. Thanks for the review!

  2. Wonderful review and the preview looks marvelous! Sorry that the absence of her doggie ruined the movie. I get pretty judgmental when watching films to the point that I can count on one hand the movies that I unabashedly love. One of them is Pride and Prejudice, not the movie, but the BBC series with Jennifer Ehle! So maybe Jennifer’s presence will make up for the lack of the dog’s.

  3. I am so glad I found your site today and read this. I had no idea about this movie– perhaps because I am living in Italy. I was raised on Emily Dickinson by my British grandmother!
    Thanks for your review!

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