In the pantheon of movies about women writers the path veers towards the British: Austen, Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Director Terence Davies gives audiences a new vision of the female writer, both in geography and personality with his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion. With a sensitive and nuanced performance from star Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion will certainly please literary buffs.
Emily Dickinson (Nixon) has led a life of quiet isolation, writing at night and spending time with her family. As Emily ages, her views on life, love and religion bring her at odds with those she cares about.
Davies, who both writes and directs, tells a tale anchored more by grand philosophical questions than a straight-forward narrative. Aided by recitation of Dickinson’s own poetry, he evokes a mood both foreign and relateable. Opening with a young Emily (played by Emma Bell) criticizing her university’s blind adherence to religion, segues from queries about authority. What does it mean to be truly free? Why are we so scared of dying, and what’s waiting for the behind? What separates the work from becoming a turgid polemic is Davies’ prose and how he places these within the context of Dickinson’s limitations.
Swathed within the overarching questions are the standard examinations of being a woman writer during the 1800s. A woman of strong mind, and even stronger voice, Dickinson understands the limitations of her sex, asking her father contritely if she can write at night “when it’s quiet.” Her poetry becomes her refuge to discourse on the hypocrisy of religion, gender and class. In a world where marriage is the ultimate goal, Dickinson starts to worry about her looks, yet it’s understandable this is a means of trying to find someone who loves her, more than adhering to expectation.
Cynthia Nixon inhabits Dickinson’s skin, embracing the quiet but always maintaining an inner strength. She can fling a catty barb when the occasion calls for it, or simply react. At several points, Davies’ camera is content to take stock of her reaction, circling the camera around to return to her reaction. It’s amazing what Nixon conveys without saying a single word – though when she speaks it’s even better. Dickinson has strong opinions, and with the addition of Davies’ wondrous prose, the words feel fully-formed. There’s a worthy Oscar campaign worth mounting for Nixon, though it’s doubtful it’ll come to fruition.
Complimenting Nixon is Dickinson’s two female compatriots – sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and the brash Lady Buffam (Catherine Bailey). No stranger to literary films after playing Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, Jennifer Ehle acts as the perfect foil for Dickinson’s barbed bluster. The two work in tandem with Vinnie as the rational person forced to deal with her sister’s deficiencies with her own quiet passion. Bailey’s Lady Buffam is reminiscent of Kate Beckinsale in last year’s Love & Friendship, Bailey provides levity as well as externalizes and reinforces Dickinson’s thoughts. The remaining actors, particularly Keith Carradine as Dickinson’s father, are amazing.
Dickinson’s discourse about life and femininity are beautifully summarized throughout the film, acting as a treatise for Dickinson fans. Dickinson is hellbent on writing, but finds herself at odds with friends, family and publishers of the era. A publisher she admires writes a critique of women poets, citing their depressive nature that leaves Dickinson hurt at the betrayal. Though the publisher seemingly respects her, there’s little overt acceptance of her writing. In an emotionally charged moment that pits Dickinson against her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), she gets an opportunity to eloquently point out the hypocrisy that women of the time faced – something that’s only altered, yet hasn’t been erased in our current world.
Davies’ commitment to the original speaking style of the time period isn’t for everyone. The dialogue is hilarious and eloquent, though it requires the audiences’ utmost attention to get the nuance and humor within the words.
A Quiet Passion is about the life we lead in private and our attempts to please both the public and private spheres. Cynthia Nixon is nothing short of luminous.