Here my twelve most important objections to A Quiet Passion:
1. The opening scene was, like so much of the movie, historically false. The woman who was, I assume, either a dean or the president of Holyoke was a fiction. Holyoke was no modern day evangelical school, but stressed, as ED alludes to in the movie, real education, including the sciences. All private schools in those days in New England, and most other places as well, were either begun or continued to be supported by churches. My own began in the late 18th as a Presbyterian school for the Oneida tribe's children and, though completely secular when I attended, nonetheless had a Calvinist as dean of the chapel, which we were required to attend. But the figure in the film was ludicrous. Everything she said sounded like a fundamentalist. Davies does not know, apparently, that that sort of crude fundamentalism was a late 19th c. invention.
2. The figure of Miss Buffoon, I will call her, was a fabrication. She was also absurd. One of the great flaws of a pervasively flawed move was the way, throughout, everyone spoke in epigrams more fitting to Oscar Wilde that Amherst in the middle of the 19th century. Everyone in the movie, including much of the time ED, sounded as if they were on stage in England performing either in Wilde or Restoration comedy, Miss Buffoon the worst of the bunch. That almost everything she said was implausible I will leave as obvious, without elaboration.
3. ED's father was difficult, but he was no tyrant, as the movie often depicts him. She was devoted to both her parents.
4. Samuel Bowles did say, in effect, "Damn it, Emily. I have come all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down here." And she did. But they were friends already and had been for quite some time. In his view, she was exasperating, as no doubt she was to contemporaries some of the time. But theirs was a warm relationship. TD makes it seem they had never met before. The following speech was entirely made up, as, of course, was almost all the dialogue in the movie. None of it had the ring of truth or even plausibility.
5. Why was the young man who came "courting" several times both nameless and obviously some twenty years or more younger than she? Why was Judge Otis Lord, referred to once, excluded from the film since he was the one man, though older than she by a number of years, she was seen to be embraced by after her reclusion had begun? That is, anyone expecting insight into ED’s relationship with men needs to look elsewhere. This movie distorts it both by what it does and does not do.
6. Sue Gilbert Dickinson and ED had a complex and strange relationship since Sue was, it would seem from what record there is, a loving, sweet, but rather uncomplicated person. As everyone knows, they did live next door. (Incidentally, the house TD used to film the movie looked in nothing like the Homestead.) But no one can know for sure what her and ED’s relationship was exactly, save for the fact that it was for a good while an intense friendship, at least on ED's part, as expressed her poetry. From what we don't know we ought to keep a certain distance and reserve. Be that as it may, Sue's nighttime visit to ED and her speech that made it sound as if she found heterosexuality repugnant was absurd. It never happened nor could it ever have happened.
7. There is a lot of complaining about the absence of women's voices in the movie. This, too, is more representative of modern day feminism than that of the 19th century. The fact is that women were publishing a lot, some of it good, most of it execrable. You remember that wonderfully comic moment in Huck Finn when the worst sort of lachrymose women's poetry is mocked, in that instance work by a young girl poet lately deceased. There is no mention in the film, for instance, of Helen Hunt Jackson, one of the best known writers of her era and a friend of ED who worked tirelessly for indigenous people's rights. There was a lot more to women's writing in those days than the Brontes and, later, Middlemarch.
8. Much of the religious "enthusiasm" in that era was owing to The Second Great Awakening. The largest outburst of it was during ED's early years (and slightly before). It was a response, in part, to the increasing secularism and materialism of American society. It was to that that ED's father, and some of her friends, responded. TD seems to have confused it with contemporary fundamentalism or the revivalism of a Billy Sunday.
9. Which point takes me to Charles Wadsworth. Nothing about his wife is historical. She is ridiculously puritanical. (Nearly everyone of any sort of religious sentiment in a TD film is mocked and belittled, with the possible except of one character in Neon Bible.) Nothing about the rest of the way in which the film portrays Wadsworth is valid, save for the fact that she heard him preach and he moved to San Francisco. It has been speculated that her "Master" letters were written to him, but speculation it remains, so far as I know.
10. ED never met Mabel Loomis Todd. Never. She never walked in on her and Austin making love. She knew about the affair of course. But she never saw the woman. And, of course, nothing is known about her reactions to that affair. MLT was one of the people who were responsible for ED's subsequent fame. She published the poems that made her earlier reputation (pre-WW2; it was only after that time that the deeper scholarly work on ED began, resulting in the first publication of her work nearly complete, though still with much altered punctuation). The fact is that to this day ED has yet to be published as she probably would have wished, with her poems devoid of nearly all punctuation except for hyphens, shaped in curious line lengths, and gathered together in fascicles (that you see her sewing in the film). But (and this is an important but since so many these days excoriate those early "editors" like Mabel Loomis Todd) without the original having been tampered with, ED's poetry never would have succeeded as it did, when it did. It took late modernism for people to champion her work as composed.
11. The matter of Schubert's Nacht und Traume, sung twice in the film is perplexing. The credits state that that was Jenny Lind singing in Boston. If so, what was she doing singing Schubert and singing him so badly? This was no Swedish nightingale. I has assumed that TD has an ear for music. I have decided it is probably the music that makes Distant Voices, Still Lives succeed, for me almost the only one of his films I can bear to watch anymore. (More on that point in a moment.) Did he deliberately select someone who couldn't sing it to vocalize it for him? Forget the nonsense of the comments made in their boxes by the Dickinson family. It was a terrible performance. Then why does it sound as if when MLT sings it in a drawing room of the Homestead later that it is the same awful performance sung by the same inept singer? NuT is one of the most beautiful lieder ever written. Why deliberately ruin it?
12. I could go on, but I fear tedium. I will return to the aunt at the film's beginning and then make my big point, not only about this film, but about TD's career. The aunt, who if she existed no one knows much about, is another instance in the movie of someone expressing something TD has constructed to express his hatred for it. In this instance, Christian moralism and puritanism. He believes, and about this he might be right, in the version of it he suffered from, it ruined his life. He uses this movie to attack it again and again. But that is the larger problem in the film. Emily Dickinson in the movie is not Emily Dickinson. No one knows much about her, not enough for a movie like this. She is Terrence Davies. Almost everything she says, all her speeches, are in one way or another expressions of what Terrence Davies has said about himself: his loneliness, his despair over his looks, his sense of isolation, his detestation of religion, his hatred for the bourgeois, his pervasive bitterness, his despair before death, his sense that life is mostly cruel and awful, that the body is its inevitable corruption, his self-loathing, especially toward his sexuality. All these and more he has embodied in his ED. It is the "voice" of all his films, from the almost comically gloom Trilogy to this one.
There is a wonderful visual artistry in his movies. Those are best which are least scripted, the one on his boyhood in Liverpool far better, like The Long Day Wanes, than its dialogue or voice overs. Distant Voices, Still Lives is redeemed by its music. But consider the scene at ED's death bed. How stagey Lavinia's and Austin's tears are over her departed soul. Those staged tears recur through Davies films. Maybe the first time seen they might move you. But repeated time after time they lose any power and become stylized and false.
For me, the worst desecration in the film is how TD has transformed ED into himself, making her, one of the greatest poets of all time, into a spokesperson for himself. She is channeling him, to use that phrase, not he her. Almost everything her actors speak in the movie make sense only when heard and viewed with that understanding.