Cynthia Nixon Excels as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion

The Dickinson ​s​isters, Emily and Vinnie (Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle).
The Dickinson ​s​isters, Emily and Vinnie (Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle). © A ​QUIET PASSION/H​URRICANE FILMS/​COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS

A Quiet Passion

Written and directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon. Opens Friday, May 12, at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -

In Corners - till a Day

The Owner passed - identified -

And carried Me away -

Those brief lines, self-conscious, elliptical and quietly morbid, with their church-hymnal cadence and eccentric punctuation, should be instantly recognizable as the work of Emily Dickinson. The American poet is known almost as much for her reclusive life as her 1,700 poems, only eleven of which were published (anonymously) in her lifetime. Dickinson's strange, sad life and her unique, personal verses are given powerful expression in Terence Davies' new film A Quiet Passion, a haunting portrayal of the author as a defiant introvert, a rebel who rejected the expectations of the world by retreating into privacy.

Davies, a filmmaker known for his near-misanthropic view of life and his dislike of the modern world, has followed last year's expansive (but underappreciated) Sunset Song with this more intimate and elegiacal work, a film that takes place almost entirely in Dickinson's Amherst home. (Though some scenes were filmed in the actual location, most of the interiors were recreated in a studio in Belgium.) The realism of the modest settings is misleading; Davies has crafted a story that is less a biography than a kind of poetic fantasia of Dickinson's life and themes, a study of the emotions in a woman who could write lines as harsh as "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain."

Any film about Emily Dickinson must of necessity be an invention, a biography by way of excavation, letting the poems and letters create the woman who worried so much about her identity and public perception. Davies does this with a deliberate theatricality in his direction as well as in the performances, a level of artifice in which the figures often seem as if they're reading from books. (There's a great deal of literary name-dropping — the Brontës, mostly.) It's stagy, but far from inappropriate; it sometimes seems as if life in books is the only life his Dickinson can truly understand.

The film introduces Dickinson as a schoolgirl, already defiant, skeptical and even "unchristian" — uncommon attributes at a time when women, she is told, shouldn't perform on stage or have literary ambitions. Davies uses this sequence to introduce the Dickinson family: two siblings, a rather conventional mother and a successful lawyer father, who is surprisingly tolerant of his rebellious brood. (Keith Carradine is a pleasure to watch in a complete reversal of his younger persona as the perennial laid-back drifter.)

After this twenty-minute prologue, Davies leaps decades ahead with a flamboyant effect: A family photo sitting turns into a montage showing the faces of Emily and family as they slowly evolve into middle age. It's a simple trick, but it serves the dual purpose of showing the weight of time on the figures and drawing our attention to the significance of photography in Dickinson's era. To those living in the mid-19th century, the family portrait was "new media."

Cynthia Nixon shines as the Belle of Amherst. - © A ​QUIET PASSION/H​URRICANE FILMS/​COURTESY OF MUSIC BOX FILMS
Cynthia Nixon shines as the Belle of Amherst.

The remainder of the film, grounded by Cynthia Nixon's performance, examines Emily's slow decline from the world. She is uneasy with life, and her dissatisfaction, hard to pin down, begins to unsettle her. When her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) consoles her by saying, "But you have your poetry," Emily's anguished answer is "you have a life; I have a routine." After a series of setbacks — the death of her father and the departure of a local preacher with whom she is infatuated — Dickinson takes to her room, refusing to go downstairs. She occasionally converses — rudely — with visitors from the top of the stairs or behind a door, becoming a kind of agoraphobic Oscar Wilde who delivers hostile barbs designed to discourage anyone who tries to get close to her.

What is at the root of Dickinson's unrest? Davies has often stated that he lost his illusions as a youth and regards most of life with indifference. Though not a recluse himself, he's unquestionably sympathetic to the feelings that led Dickinson to become one. In his view, she is unable to balance her creative emotions with the weight of social expectations. She defies conventions about religion and femininity, but for all of her thoughts on the future and the heritage of her work, doesn't know how to replace them. Only near the end, after a disagreement between Emily and her brother Austin, does she begin to understand the price of her isolation.

This sense of unease is not, however, limited only to the unconventional writer. Nearly everyone in A Quiet Passion is melancholy and haunted by the sense that life, if not meaningless, is certainly puzzling and vague; Emily is simply the one who rebels against it the most.

Dickinson's intellectual rebellion and emotional suffering are the heart of the film, and Cynthia Nixon weaves them into a performance of painful intensity. To call it an unglamorous role is an understatement. I've admired Nixon ever since she played the devoted daughter of a politician in Robert Altman's Tanner '88, but nothing in her later career — which famously includes Sex and the City — has allowed her to command a film like this. We see Emily suffer, sulk and belittle and alienate her family, her benefactors and ultimately almost anyone who crosses her path, but Nixon also shows a trace of regret, a sense that this uncomfortable creature simply can't help herself.

A Quiet Passion is also, perhaps inevitably, a film about death, a subject that consumed Dickinson and inspired much of her work. Both of her parents die over the course of the film, and Davies shows how these events disrupt and rearrange the family structure. These scenes merely act as introduction to the theme. An agonizing amount of drama also comes from Dickinson's own decline, not just in the form of physical disability but in her increasing sense of hopelessness. Her ambiguous sense of mortality is already clear in her work; Davies and Nixon bring the woman behind that work to life with remarkable humanity.

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