Few filmmakers are as capable of portraying the past – mostly that of England, but on at least two occasions, the U.S. – as Britain’s Terence Davies, whose films also typically chronicle the stories of strong women who struggle against the times in which they exist. For those unfamiliar with Davies’ work, I’d urge you to check out his two gorgeous post World War II elegies The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, although his powerful The Deep Blue Sea, adaptation of The House of Mirth and last year’s terrific Sunset Song are equally worth seeing.
His only previous journey to America was 1995’s The Neon Bible, but his latest – A Quiet Passion – tells the story of one of the nation’s most iconic literary figures, the great Emily Dickinson. In the picture, the poet is portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in a career changing performance, but when we first meet Emily, she is played by Emma Bell as a schoolgirl who clashes with the strict religious teachings at the private school she attends in New England.
It’s not that Emily doesn’t believe in God – she just has different views on his relationship with human beings than do her teachers, who fixate more on doctrine than independent thought. It’s that word – independence – that is both liberating and a lifelong crutch for Emily, who spends her entire life at home with her family – a father (Keith Carradine) who entertains her anti-authority tendencies with a smile, shy mother (Joanna Bacon), caddish brother (Duncan Duff) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), who doubles as her best friend. The only person with whom Emily regularly socializes is Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a bawdy young woman who is the polar opposite of the reclusive poet.
In the first half of the picture, the mood is mostly light as Emily, her sister and Vryling trade wry quips and witticisms. Emily’s father also appears to take some amusement in his daughter’s behavior, most notably during a scene in which he notices a dirty spot on a plate that she proceeds to smash on the table and then continue eating.
But the film’s second half, as Emily becomes more reclusive to the point that she hardly leaves her room and only communicates with guests by shouting down from the landing, is significantly bleaker. For those familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, it’s this second half that will seem more in tune with the work she produced – poems that were hardly recognized until after her death.
History passes the family by. The Civil War breaks out, but it is referenced as if it were taking place a world away, much like how Americans likely speak of Syria today. Some family dramas ensue – Emily has a falling out with her brother after she catches him cheating on his wife, who is Emily’s friend, with a society woman – and Emily eventually begins to succumb to disease. As she withers, Emily starts to lash out at those close to her, but it appears that – and her sister recognizes this – she is also turning her own anger inward, most likely for the sacrifices that she imposed on herself.
Due to Nixon’s strong performance and the near-chamber piece style of the film, A Quiet Passion is a unique entry into the biopic genre. It doesn’t quite tell the full story of Emily Dickinson that one might expect, but it provides a view into how the viewer can corroborate the poet’s lauded – and often hauntingly morose – work with the life she led. The film is well worth seeing.