There is something deeply funny and also beautiful about the idea that it would take a British man in his 70s to make the definitive film about one of America’s greatest female poets. But that’s what Terence Davies has done for Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a fiercely intelligent, handsome and affecting rendering of Dickinson’s extraordinary, ordinary life from her teenage years to her death in 1886.
It’s the kind of breath of fresh air experience that sneaks up on you and proves to be a welcome respite from the growing noise of early summer movies. Davies’ script is filled to the brim with witty observations and barbs that you’ll want to scribble down, remember and recite. How many movies can you say that about lately?
The film opens on a group of teenage girls, all primly dressed and hair parted down the middle as a stern headmistress asks for those who wish to be “Christian and saved” to move to her right, and those who remain and “still wish to be saved” to move to the left. One doesn’t move. A redheaded Emily (Emma Bell) stands firmly in the middle of the room and vigorously debates her elder.
“I wish I could feel as others do, but it’s not possible,” Emily says.
She’s the perpetual outsider, who doesn’t fit in the world at large, only at home with her mother, father, brother and sister. She leaves school, saying with a coy smile that she’s ill from an “acute case of evangelism,” and retreats to Amherst for the majority of her days.
The world is bright and full of possibility for young Emily. She asks her bemused father (Keith Carradine) for permission to stay awake and write her poetry in the quiet of the night. She spars with her conservative aunt with glee. She relishes in her otherness, taking pleasure in making those around her uncomfortable with her wry remarks and sharp tongue. But she doesn’t need others – she has her family.
And then age hits. Time passes, conveyed by an unsettling sequence showing the morphing of the Dickinson family’s faces into their older selves, and the sadness and eventually bitterness starts to creep in.
Cynthia Nixon now inhabits Emily, Jennifer Ehle is her sister Vinnie and Duncan Duff is her brother Austin. There is still vigor and energy in all, but life has tempered that a bit. Emily finds a lively companion in Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is even more modern than Emily. But Vryling manages to delight in the silly constrictions of their society where Emily is deeply conflicted and tormented by pressures of piety, decorum and what she feels is right.
And the world only seems to disappoint Emily as time goes on. Some of her poems are published, but not enough. She falls madly in love with a married pastor, but he does not return her affections. Her married brother falls for another woman. Her health begins to fail. And then there’s death, which looms everywhere.
“A Quiet Passion” is a film of easy beauty – the palette favors soft blues, yellows, whites and greens. But while the visuals and steady shots are often relaxing, at the heart is a searing and soulful performance of an anguished artist born into the wrong time. Nixon gives a new life and a womanly dimension to someone who, beyond her haunting words, we only really know visually as a perpetual teenager. Her poetry is a backdrop, used like a well-placed music cue at key points in the story.
Davies, it turns out, was the perfect filmmaker to tell her story – poetically, humanely and unflinchingly.
‘A Quiet Passion’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May.
Writer-director: Terence Davies.
Running time: 126 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material).