The apparent ideological gap in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion between Emily Dickinson and her strict protestant upbringing might have modern audiences lauding the misunderstood poet as an early equal rights activist, a well-needed echo of contemporary values in a period piece reflecting truly backward times:while her family of New England elitists took a conciliatory stance in the years leading to the Civil War hoping to maintain the Union (and the status-quo), Emily was an overt abolitionist who refused to undergo the humble pilgrimage imposed by the religious revival of The Great Awakening. Not only could her beliefs be inconsistent – sometimes denouncing her puritan heritage, and at others, embracing it (her brother Edward’s adultery is the threshold) – ideology as a whole is put into perspective in A Quiet Passion: Emily and her siblings upset their aunt Elizabeth – a grotesque gap-toothed matron – with ‘appallingly modern’ remarks about The French Revolution, a situation that soon escalates into genuine conflict, but then quickly turns into a homely ritual of taking loving jabs at one another and responding with rehearsed indignation, suggesting that these so-called deep rooted convictions are merely extensions of social roles.
Everyone seems to respect their place in the universe of A Quiet Passion, a microcosm consisting solely of the Dickinson family homestead in Amherst where Boston’s beau monde gathers for countless garden parties. Even the radiant chatterbox Vryling Buffam– Emily’s partner in crime –who waltzes around with the poise of a 50’s melodrama starlet and openly questions the social mores through witty banter and innuendos, is a too obvious figure of dissent to be convincingly provocative. Her acts of rebellion range from suggestively waving her fan to offending straight-faced Cavalry sergeants with her knowledge of Wuthering Heights and in spite of her many rants on gender inequality, she eventually settles down and succumbs to marriage herself. Emily, on the other hand, is a barrel of contractions and harder to categorize: a mousy woman, a bashful mimic whose sudden outbursts are unpredictable, making her the only out-of-synch element in a well-orchestrated social ballet. Vryling describes her: “You don’t demonstrate anything, you reveal.”
But what are the consequences of being inherently radical? For Emily, it is emotional quicksand, as she finds herself torn between the love for her family and her artistic aspirations, her deeply spiritual nature and her distrust for organized religion. A series of recurring close-ups of her family members placed against a dark, absent background – extracted as if from an ever-thickening family photo album – depict the process of their ageing: hairlines recede, faces wrinkle – but these illustrate not only Emily’s isolation from the world outside, but also her utter, single-minded devotion to those she calls her own. And while the film ends sadly – with Emily’s reclusiveness and misanthropy becoming increasingly pathological – a feeling of splendour prevails, to be found in small, meaningful gestures, such as Emily combing her bedridden mother’s hair, making A Quiet Passion an unapologetic salute to family cohesion.