Emily Dickinson was a remarkable poet who led an understated life in comparison to the magic and deep reflection of her writing. Following on from a portrayal of the Brontes in the BBC’s To Walk Invisible, A Quiet Passion shines a light on another mysterious literary giant and one of their near-contemporaries.
The film is an attentive biopic, following Dickinson from a turbulent youth to her last days. Surrounding her in the quiet Massachusetts town of Amherst are her siblings (played by Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff), and her anxious parents, trying desperately to understand the spiritual crisis that drove her poetry. As with many biopics, it’s only accurate to a point, but any artistic license crucially comes across as appropriate to the poet herself.
The lead figure is played by two actresses, and in an intelligent and engaging film trick, a short scene in the set of a photographer’s studio show them gradually ageing from one to the other. Cynthia Nixon plays the older incarnation and occupies the majority of the screen time with a performance that is remarkable for its honesty. Dickinson was a person who showed great integrity, to the point where it could seem incredibly caring to others but sometimes alienating. Anxiety over the nature of God similarly marked her as an outcast, as she felt she couldn’t conform to her conservative surroundings. It’s not an easy part to play, but Nixon captures all of this and more.
Directed and written by Terence Davis, A Quiet Passion also showcases the best of his understated style with true affection for the subject. That said, if you’re unused to Davies’ style of film, then his pacing will seem exceptionally sedate. Long musical interludes aren’t uncommon, nor are shots that move languidly through scenes. Despite this identifiable style, when the material is exceptional and original, Davies’ pacing works in favour of fantastic writing and performances, allowing the actors space to stretch their characters in lengthy scenes.
There are other small flourishes that make the film special. Such examples include the wonderful performances by veteran stars of BBC period dramas Jennifer Ehle and Jodhi May, who by now would look strange out of period costume. In addition and in recognition of the poet’s genius, Nixon’s voice reads out Dickinson’s poems as narration throughout corresponding scenes, and her delivery captures her passionate spirit. Impressively, Davies has revealed that those readings were each recorded in the first take.
In A Quiet Passion, the director has created something both utterly personal, yet reverential and empathetic. Terence Davies and Cynthia Nixon show Emily Dickinson’s flaws as well as her genius with the kind of fairness that every biopic should aspire to. For a fan of Dickinson, this will be a treat. If you weren’t exposed to her work before, it’s a fair assumption that you’ll leave curious about the poet and her writing.