Editor’s Note: A Quiet Passion opens in limited theatrical release today, April 14, 2017, and in Los Angeles on April 21st.
Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a bright and engaging portrait of Emily Dickinson, is more family drama than biopic. Steadfastly anti-romantic, the film exaggerates the conventions of the standard biopic, dishing out expository lines of dialogue without any attempt to make them sound conversational. It’s not just that the speech is stilted, but that every conversation consists of nothing but witty observations or clever rejoinders; all who speak sound as though they’re narrating a multi-part PBS documentary series, and every face, even the joyous ones, features a pair of slightly pickled lips. It sounds infuriating, but is presented with such good humor that one can hardly complain.
One day, nearly collapsed with a mysterious pain, Emily (Cynthia Nixon) yells at the servants. The anger passes but the passion in her voice remains. As difficulties big and small begin to mount, and as the Civil War looms closer and closer, emotions in the Dickinson household intensify. Conversations become real, full of honesty and no longer with the metered deliberation of their antebellum world.
Cynthia Nixon does a tremendous job bringing the lovely Emily back to life, frequently recalling the poet’s own description of herself a small, like the wren. It’s a powerhouse of a performance, embracing everything contradictory about the awkward, earnest, complicated woman, and doing so convincingly.
As her world shrinks, as friends leave and loved ones die, Emily retreats to her room, writing often and suffering from a series of seizures. Questionably, these scenes of seizures are lengthy and harrowing, the poet’s sharp, heavy breaths mimicking the lustful panting of a certain Mrs. Todd (Noémie Schellens), the married woman she once caught her very married brother (Duncan Duff) entangled with on the couch. The parallels drawn between Emily and Mrs. Todd are dubious.
Cynthia Nixon does a tremendous job bringing the lovely Emily back to life, frequently recalling the poet’s own description of herself a small, like the wren. It’s a powerhouse of a performance, embracing everything contradictory about the awkward, earnest, complicated woman, and doing so convincingly. Emily frequently calls herself plain (or worse) though she, and the film, are anything but. Gorgeous interiors and bright, warm, sunny days in gardens and along lovely paths fill the first half of the film, and later, after Emily chooses to never leave the home again, sunlight still spills through the windows and warm lamps give nighttime a glow. Jennifer Ehle similarly glows as Emily’s loyal sister Vinnie, both vivacious and endearing.
Gorgeous interiors and bright, warm, sunny days in gardens and along lovely paths fill the first half of the film, and later, after Emily chooses to never leave the home again, sunlight still spills through the windows and warm lamps give nighttime a glow.
Though primarily a witty drama about family life, there are little jokes for Emily’s devoted fans of her poetry, too, such as when Mrs. Todd, angry that Emily was no longer receiving guests, hisses that she’ll remember the slight. And she does remember, though we never see it in the film, years later when she compiled a collection of Dickinson’s work, editing it heavily, and including a few sideways comments about “Miss Emily” and her outdated hair and “weird white dress.”
These references to what little we do know about Dickinson’s life are scattered throughout, but the movie strives to tell us what we don’t know. It’s compelling throughout, though the occasional fudging of facts does lead to a misstep regarding Emily’s loathing for her brother’s mistress. This is not because it failed to portray Emily’s real feelings for Mrs. Todd — ambivalent to angry, though not always unkind — but that it was done to make a larger point about hypocrisy that reads far too much like modern moralism than actual insight into Dickinson’s psyche. It’s the only time that the film really flounders; it’s when Emily Dickinson is the focus that A Quiet Passion truly comes to life.
A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies' look at the life of poet Emily Dickinson, is more witty drama about family life than biopic, with lush visuals and outstanding performances from Cynthia Nixon and the supporting cast.