DVD Movie Review: A Quiet Passion

By Thom Compton 15.04.2018

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A Quiet Passion (UK Rating: 12)

A Quiet Passion is a remarkably authentic film, capturing the language and the climate of pre-Civil War America and Post-Civil War America perfectly. Emily and the people in her life speak in a way that is historically accurate, dress in a way that is historically accurate, and face issues that were unique to the time, for the most part. The film does grapple with remarkably modern problems, such as women's rights and what is expected of a woman versus what a woman wants for herself. This should all ring just as important now as it did then, except that A Quiet Passion starts off awful, and only manages to ever get to be okay.

The first moments of cringe-worthy cinema emerge when viewers meet young Emily
Dickinson, played by Emma Bell. When her family arrives to save her from a life of torment, they embrace, and the film's issues become apparent immediately. The acting here - and the blame is shared pretty evenly amongst the cast - is largely awful. For the first thirty minutes or so, everyone feels so out of place and rigid when they state their lines that they sound like they are making fun out of theatre kids who are reading their lines a bit too loudly in the hallway.

While the dialogue is realistic, none of the actors or actresses read it with any sense that they even understand what they are saying. A young Austin seems to have been given the direction of "Think of a smarmy young Oliver Twist character, where everything is a joke and you're just so clever, haha!" Even the bigger talent, like Keith Carradine, sound ridiculous as they push their lines through some sort of weird, Dickens nightmare, brought to you by some high school that lost the rights to the play they wanted to do and two days before show had to do this story instead.

Then the characters age, in a scene that's vaguely reminiscent of a pop music video. Cynthia Nixon takes over as Dickinson, and she is able to do a slightly better performance than Bell, although not at first. Director Terence Davies (Sunset Song) seems to be the main issue here, as his demand for authenticity is largely cartoonish. An early conversation with the children's aunt is the perfect example of this, as the whole thing plays out like a Far Side cartoon.

Again, Nixon does a commendable job as the film goes on. It seems that, much like pop star Avril Lavigne, the more miserable Dickinson is, the more the viewer can believe and enjoy her. When Dickinson is happy, it still comes off as fake, and not in a good way. Davies seems more interested in betraying the character and revealing her to be a miserable mess in the third act, so much so her perpetual smile early on looks like it might crack like a porcelain tea cup.

However, in this sea of weird over acting, one actress actually manages to out-do all of her cast mates, and that's Jennifer Ehle, who plays Emily's sister, Vinnie. She's the most believable of the cast, being perpetually brilliant even when the rest seem unable to find their grounding. Unlike Nixon's Emily, Vinnie is believable throughout most of the film, except, again, when they first age, when no-one seems to have had any time to prepare their characters. It's fascinating, because by the final scene, everyone's performances are really good, making you wonder why they couldn't bring the emotional intensity unless everything was morose and grim.

There are other characters throughout who aren't members of the Dickinson clan, but none of them stand out for any real reason, good or bad, except for Vryling Buffam, who isn't much better than the Dickinsons. Her character's gimmick seems to be that she ends every sentence with a quip and raises her eyebrow. This happens so often it's genuinely infuriating by the time she's been on camera for 15 minutes. It's not obvious if this is the actress' fault or not, but she's just another annoying character taking up space in this unusual world of overacting and stilted personalities. Worse yet, most of the last hour is just Emily being snarky and rude to people, and Vinnie calling her out on it. It's just a lot of repetitive nonsense that ultimately amounts to a better, but not by much final hour.

Rated 3 out of 10


There are moments, although they distance themselves from each other like kids trying not to catch cooties, that A Quiet Passion is moderately interesting. It feels like a lot of different bad decisions went into making A Quiet Passion a film that only ever so often dangles a carrot in front of your face. It doesn't end up making you want to do much more than watch something else, though, because the final product is an experience so devoid of entertainment values that it begs people to ask themselves why they even bother trying to be entertained at all.

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