Some one hundred thirty years after her death in the house in Amherst, Pennsylvania where she lived as a recluse dressed in white and scribbling poetry in the middle of the night, do we know more about Emily Dickinson than her ever-puzzled circle did? Books about her would make a hefty library, scholars who have spent a lifetime researching her would fill a mid-size conference room, her own poetry, some two thousand short poems with their idiosyncratic punctuation, especially the ubiquitous dash, has never stopped selling and touching millions. Her reputation as a major poet, on par only with that of Walt Whitman in the nineteenth century, is solidly established.
Yet, we are probably just as far from knowing her, or anything about her, as we ever were. Did she love, or was her only passion the extraordinary poetry that started springing unchecked, early on, the inspiration waning only toward the end, as she was dying in her mid-fifties? Did the distant roar of the world ever touch her in the garden she took such care of, was she afraid that only posterity would recognize her, she who had ambition and not very persuasively tried to get her work published, living on hope (“the thing with feathers that perches in the soul”) only seeing a handful of poems published in her lifetime, mangled by well-meaning editors who, brought up on classics, thought that verse must rhyme and surely start with a capital letter and couldn’t possibly close with a dash where proper style required a period.
Thus, Emily. Touching and exasperating, willful and thrashing in the limits of what a woman was allowed to do or think or how she could spend her time and how well she bore whatever label fate had affixed on her: wife? Lover? Dutiful student? Obedient servant of parish and clergyman and deity? Or, more to the point, rebel?
MORE: see Saïdeh Pakravan’s other film reviews
Terence Davies, the British author of “The Deep Blue Sea” and “House of Mirth” tackles the Amherst recluse with sympathy and an understanding of the limitations thrust upon her. His austere approach works well in the muted atmosphere of the beloved family in which the poet grows up and with which she spends her entire life, with family members close despite squabbles and losses.
“A quiet passion,” thankfully no biopic, gives us a sense of the inner Emily Dickinson but leaves the extraordinary poet as much an enigma as ever and thus she will remain.
“A quiet passion” hit theaters on April 14th, 2017.
Saïdeh Pakravan is senior contributor to Screen Comment. Her novel Azadi earned the Marie-Claire Prize in 2015.