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Towards the end of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a new “biopic” of the poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), there’s a shot in which Dickinson is shown lying on her bed. The mood is not a relaxed one; she’s just been struck by a debilitating series of seizures, and in the next scene, she’ll end up passing away for good. What’s striking about this moment, however, is the combination of the anguish on Dickinson’s face, the foreshortened way her legs stand out in the foreground, and the way the bed fills the center of the frame: taken together, the whole image provides a very close imitation of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s famous depiction of a dead Jesus in Cristo morto. It’s almost as though Dickinson, like Christ, has reached some form of transcendence through death.
Alas, if there’s just one thing Davies’ take on Dickinson teaches you, it’s that this transcendence is only attained after a lifetime of emotional and spiritual agony. Continue reading