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Emily Dickinson: the real deal  

07 April 2017

Stephen Brown on a poet and a private eye in current films

Piety: a scene in A Quiet Passion

Piety: a scene in A Quiet Passion

EMILY DICKINSON’s verse “Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant” ends with “The Truth must dazzle gradu­ally Or every man be blind —”. This is exactly what the director, Terence Davies, does in A Quiet Passion (Cert. 12A).

Though never quoted, it’s a lode­star for this account of the 19th-­century Massachusetts poet. Throughout the film, Emily rarely practises what she preaches, speak­ing the unvarnished truth as she sees it. When the Principal of her semin­ary asks if she wishes to come to God and be saved, Emily demurs. “I will not be forced to piety. . . I am not yet awakened.”

One might applaud her honesty, but, over time, such truth-telling becomes increasingly uncomfort­able. Emily has an answer for every­thing and everyone. Initially witty, it begins after a while to pall, like a bad day on Downton Abbey when Maggie Smith’s dowager makes too many acerbic comments. One real­ises these remarks are expres­sions of Emily’s frustrations with organised religion (”God knows what’s in my heart. He doesn’t need me to be in church to be reminded”) and patriarchy (”You have a life,” she tells her brother; “I have a routine”).

In another Dickinson poem (again, not quoted in the film), “Why Do they Shut Me out of Heaven?”, she asks: “Did I sing too loud?” Hardly. Dickinson wrote nigh on two thousand poems, often with textual variations. Fewer than a dozen were published. Posterity has judged differently, including Davies, who considers Dickinson to be America’s finest poet.

Cynthia Nixon (Miranda from Sex and the City) brings an an­­guished gravitas to the role. The title A Quiet Passion could refer to vari­ous aspects of Dickinson. There is a preoccupation with mortality and eternity, thoughts voiced by Nixon in poems we hear. One also recog­nises in the director’s dialogue this lapsed Roman Catholic and pro­fessed atheist continuing to wrestle with faith. He is not much of a sniper at religion, though there are some deliciously wicked lines. Ap­­parently, only Episcopalians mistake outward piety for the inward kind.

Dickinson’s protests may be aimed at a Protestantism that stifles the human spirit and is obsessed with sinfulness but when the Revd Charles Wadsworth, a more con­genial minister who recognises her greatness, arrives, she becomes an ardent churchgoer. Heartbroken when he moves to San Francisco, Dickinson is kinder about her own adulterous feelings than those of her brother towards a Mrs Mabel Todd, with whom she finds him canood­ling.

Much of this is fiction. Dickinson and Todd never met, and the latter in real life oversaw the publication of Dickinson’s work. Aesthetically, A Quiet Passion may “dazzle gradu­ally”, but finally it does so with stun­ning effect. The scene in which Dickinson imagines a man slowly ascending the staircase to her room pulsates with eroticism and presents us with a view at odds with earlier insistence that her family is all she requires, and her later practice as a recluse.

All in all, this is a film that is pre­pared to accept the contradictions and, ultimately, the mystery of its subject. To quote a poem that the film does cite, Dickinson numbers among those “who charge within the bosom / the Cavalry of Woe”. Or should that read “Calvary”?


THE War on Terror follows a War on Error conducted by jihadists in­­tent on rectifying Western devia­tion from paths of righteousness. Such is the notion of City of Tiny Lights (Cert. 15) directed by Pete Travis. When a friend of Melody (Cush Jumbo) goes missing, she enlists a private investigator, Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed). This leads him to Al-­Dabaran (Alex­ander Siddig), a radical mul­lah.

There is a war going on for our souls, he says. Society is driven by evil desires for sex, drugs, etc. It needs showing the error of its ways. Akhtar has his own moral compass, learned from his father, Farzad (Roshan Seth), who deals with life in terms of playing cricket. “Always guard your off stump, Tommy, son.” And, although not given to the wisecracks of a Philip Marlowe, there is no mistaking his off­spring’s search for truth, taking him into a world of religious extremism and the dark ways of security services.

In that respect, the film places itself in a familiar setting — the usually nocturnal mean streets of inner-city London — except that, thanks to Felix Wiedemann’s cine­matography, its tiny lights are enough to illuminate shadowy corners of the soul. It takes only one candle to light up the darkness, and there are times when Akhtar is in effect people’s confessor, be­­stowing both absolution and pen­ances. He, in voice-over, declares “I deal in the lies people tell and the secrets that they don’t. . . I dig them up and I bury them.”

Problems occur when it comes to himself. He is as troubled as his clients and their associates. Dis­cover­ing the truth becomes as elu­sive as holding on to soap in the bath. Throughout the film, I was put in mind of another one, Chinatown, in which Noah tells Jake: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but, believe me, you don’t.” In that film, the children of this world are wiser than the children of light. While City of Tiny Lights’ narrative differs substantially from Polanski’s, the new film has similar elements of surreptitious evil.

Unfortunately, a rather too ob­­vious placing of clues leaves few surprises by the end. Indeed, we wonder how it took Akhtar so long to work out. Perhaps that is be­­cause the spectator often sees more of the game and can leave the cin­ema feeling rather superior. Tommy’s father, a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda, knows a thing or two about how those with power can serve up lies as truth. He sug­gests that Tommy has been bowled a googly. How’s that? “The real success of a googly is it gets into the batsman’s head. So what’s in your head?”

We, the audience, already know. It’s the re-emergence, after a twenty-year gap, of Shelley (Billie Piper), with whom Tommy had a painful love affair. Dormant ghosts now intrude on his investigations, pun­ishing youthful errors. How they are laid to rest has an unex­pectedly Christian tone to it, enabling Tommy to return to sifting the truth from the secrets and lies that he has uncovered. Those tiny lights have made all the difference.

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