Considering the enigma of Emily Dickinson’s life, her reclusiveness, her being largely unpublished while alive and the posthumous popularity of her work, the poet is an ideal subject for a film biography, something that might ignite an image of her in the audience’s imagination. Terence Davies, that most sensitive and, himself, poetic of artists, would seem an ideal person to accomplish that task.
So the fact that “A Quiet Passion” doesn’t succeed, seeming to push Dickinson further into darkness — or more accurately, gloom — is greatly disappointing. Paradoxically, the reason may be that the director feels too much empathy for his subject, feels her pain too exquisitely. If this is revelatory biography, it is an unfortunate perspective many may wish to do without.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830, died in 1886, and in between spent almost the entirety of her life at her family home, rarely venturing out into the world, never marrying, maintaining her few friendships mostly through letters. She wrote poetry passionately and prolifically, close to 1,800 poems, yet only seven were published in her lifetime — whether by choice or as a sign of the times being one question hotly debated by her biographers.
Davies ambitiously sets out to fill the gaps in her story, but more importantly broaden our understanding of her, of the feelings that fueled the poetry and the forces that compelled this fiercely intelligent woman to hide from the world. As the adult Emily, he’s cast Cynthia Nixon, taking her most significant role since Miranda in “Sex and the City” (the antithesis in every way to this project) and who certainly gives everything in presenting this complex and tortured woman, profoundly at odds with the times in which she lived.
We first see Emily bullied as a “no-hoper" at seminary and having to be rescued from it by her father Edward (Keith Carradine) and returned home, never to venture out again. Growing up to be the most outspoken of a trio of independently minded siblings, she takes great pleasure along with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and sister Vinnie (the excellent Jennifer Ehle) in teasing puritan relatives and reverends; yet at the same time she harbors profound fears for her soul after death.
For his part, Edward Dickinson is torn between indulging his child’s independence, and feeling his own beliefs piqued by her behavior. His wife (Joanna Bacon) is so afflicted by ill-health and melancholy that she rarely leaves her bedroom. While Emily shares her father’s contradictory nature (her rudely-expressed moral positions are all over the place, which for the viewer makes her far from sympathetic), she follows her mother towards reclusion — driven by a combination of anger with the world, disappointment in love, and an almost psychotic vanity.
As regards the poetry, Davies presents a clear rebuff from the literary establishment, an early editor informing the poet that “women can’t create the permanent treasures of literature.” More surprising, only rarely does she seem to enjoy her writing; when commended by her sister-in-law for her poetry, she replies “But you have a life. I have a routine…. rigor is no substitute for happiness.” Nixon frequently reads the poems over the action, the verse serving to illustrate Dickinson’s views and observations. The device works only to a degree; since we’ve long been led to believe that poetry was the core concern and joy of this woman’s life, it would have been preferable to see it live and breath on screen, not over it.
And this is where “A Quiet Passion” becomes problematic: it feels like an academic exercise, more appropriate to a history channel. Though there are shards of wit here and there, for the most part the storytelling is dry, and increasingly heavy going. Even when Emily and friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) gaily exchange rebellious repartee, it feels stilted and too much, the words creating overkill; in all, it’s a very, very talky film, with diminishing returns, its increasingly bitter subject reduced in stature as she becomes more entrenched in her misery.
As ever, Davies’s style is meticulously detailed, exquisitely composed
and shot (with his “Deep Blue Sea” cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister) and leisurely
paced. In keeping with the subject, the camera rarely roams outside the Amherst
mansion. Within, we’re given a persuasive sense of a well-to-do household of
that time and place — with the increasing sense of how this comfortable
dwelling might eventually seem like a tomb. Sadly, it gets to feel as though we’re
locked up with them.