“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”
Emily Dickinson: poet, recluse…screwball comedy heroine? Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion liberates Dickinson from dusty history, where the poet is sharp-tongued, quick-witted and suffers no fools. Played brilliantly by Cynthia Nixon, this Dickinson would be right at home in a Howard Hawks farce. The result is jarring and takes some getting used to.
It’s not easy to make poetry, or the act of writing it, cinematic, and to his credit Davies doesn’t even try. We never seem Emily composing, and only get a smattering of her poetry through some voice-overs. This is because Davies isn’t interested in Dickinson the writer as much as he is Dickinson the firebrand. As A Quiet Passion opens, we see teenage Emily (Emma Bell) being reprimanded by, and then in turn dishing it right back out to her school mistress. At home, Emily refuses to fall in line with her family’s pious approach to religion — in one scene, she refuses to kneel during a prayer, much to the anger and embarrassment of her father (Keith Carradine).
A Quiet Passion unfolds along a standard biopic line, and as far as narrative goes it’s decidedly lacking. As pains and fits begin to befall Emily we know it’s only a matter of time before her health fully deteriorates. And as Emily slowly decides to stop leaving the house, we know her seclusion will set in. We know where all this is going, and Davies is content to not play tricks with us or tinker with the timeline.
What keeps A Quiet Passion from succumbing to the biopic blues is Davies’ witty script and Nixon’s beautiful performance. The actress is so wonderful here that it completely distracts us from how formulaic this film can be. We watch as Nixon’s Dickinson goes from someone full of rapid-fire dialogue to a nervous wreck, cursing her own reflection for not being something more than she is. It’s a triumphant yet heartbreaking performance; the type of performance that’s a sheer joy to watch.
Nixon is matched by Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s loving, long-suffering sister Vinnie. Ehle strikes just the right note of compassion as her character struggles to comfort Emily in her times of despair. The film truly sings whenever it allows Nixon and Ehle to bounce off each other. Anytime it strays to other characters, though, like Emily’s brother Austin (Duncan Duff) or her father, it tends to lag.
After the lush, gorgeous scenery on display in Davies’ most recent film Sunset Song, it’s a touch disappointing to spend so much of A Quiet Passion sequestered in the same few rooms, no matter how ornately decorated they may be. Of course, this is Emily’s story, and as Emily dared not venture past her front door neither shall we.
In an age where every film must spawn a franchise, or a cinematic universe, or a meme, it’s somewhat refreshing to take in such a handsomely mounted, singular production as A Quiet Passion. It is a funny, sincere, ultimately melancholy film, and it is content to be nothing more than that. We should reward that.