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This report is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

A Quiet Passion (II) Madeleine Airlie
1. ‘That you will not betray me


TERENCE DAVIES’S A Quiet Passion depressingly renders the life of Emily Dickinson as a claustrophobic costume drama. Elsewhere Davies has been praised for his depictions of feminine independence and community. For the real Emily Dickinson these were invisible concerns, played out passionately in writing but not manifest in outward action. ‘Should you ask what had happened here,’ she wrote to her close friend Mrs Holland in 1879, ‘I should say nothing perceptible. Sweet latent events – too shy to confide – ’. Hence from the filmmaker some creative interpretation is required to show how Dickinson’s various concerns – authority, eternity, poetry – preoccupied, tortured and fuelled her imagination.

Unfortunately creative interpretation is lacking. The one attempt to dramatise Dickinson’s vision is a brief interlude in which a blurred, dark-suited man ascends the stairs towards her bedroom (it’s not clear what this is supposed to signify). Even on a literal level, the film tells rather than shows; we hear that she writes at night, and that she likes to write letters, but there are hardly any shots of Dickinson actually writing.

Echoes of phrasing from Dickinson’s correspondence are shoehorned into the dialogue, resulting in numerous exchanges on the soul (its uses, whose is more beautiful, and where it is to go). The effect is affectedness; no one really talks the way they write, and in any case it’s hard to believe that, even in the fervently Puritanical communities of nineteenth-century New England, the soul was ...


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