A Quiet Passion tells the life story of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), the American poet who went all but ignored in her own lifetime, but who is now considered by many to be the greatest poet America ever produced. The film begins in her time in seminary and ends with her premature death, focusing on her life as a recluse and her often-contentious relationship with her family.
The plot description of Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion makes it sound like a conventional biopic, but I hesitate to even use the word “biopic” to describe it. Certainly, it tells the life story of poet Emily Dickinson, but conveying a chronology of her life is not Davies’s intent. Instead, he wants to convey her artistic essence, both through the choice of scenes to portray and the manner in which he frames them. Davies wants to tell Emily Dickinson’s story, but more importantly, he wants people to comprehend her vitality. A Quiet Passion is a beautiful film, in both form and intent, but its theatrical archness will leave most viewers alienated, much as Dickinson’s poetry would not amuse casual readers.
In the opening scene, a stern headmistress has girls at the seminary divide into two groups: on her right are those who want to pursue Christian salvation immediately, and on her left are those who hope salvation will come their way in the future. As the girls parts into groups, a young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) is left standing alone in the middle. From the first scene, Davies is declaring that Emily Dickinson refuses easy binaries. The headmistress even says, “You are alone in your rebellion, Ms. Dickinson,” in case things weren’t clear enough.
Aloneness is central to Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, and Davies makes it the film’s main preoccupation. Emily Dickinson was a recluse and her poems were not popular in her lifetime. Only a dozen poems were published while she was alive, and even then, foolish editors changed them without consent. As well, after her father (an excellent Keith Carradine) died, she restricted herself to the upstairs of her family home, communicating primarily through letters. The world isolated her art, and she in turn isolated herself.
Davies understands the tragedy here, but also comprehends that Dickinson was unique precisely because she bucked the trends of her times without becoming a reactionary. For instance, she was a pious Christian, but refused evangelism or outward declarations of piety. She lived a life of isolation, but never became a nun. There are many scenes of her lecturing her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), or sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), on morality, and in the late moments of the film, these scenes become excuses for the actors to scream witty elocutions at each other. Luckily, the actors are up to the task. Ehle is at home in these sorts of costume dramas, but Cynthia Nixon is particularly impressive in the role. None of her previous work (especially in Sex in the City) suggested such vulnerability and wit.
It’d be remiss to not mention how gorgeous this film is. A Quiet Passion is beautiful, even sumptuous. Certain shots look like paintings, with soft light striking across the frame through windows or the richness of a candle glow transforming the faces of the actors into something akin to oil paint. However, the rhythm of editing is odd. Scenes play statically, with two characters often sitting opposite each other, speaking eloquently in arch language that conveys emotion, but without much passion to their delivery. Only later in the film do characters allow themselves to raise their voices and the viewer’s pulse. There’s a stylization here that plays into Davies’s transportive intent, but the rhythms and mise-en-scène can alienate instead of bewitch. There are suggestions of transcendent cinema here, but not enough to justify its categorization as such.
It’s unlikely that a viewer unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson would appreciate A Quiet Passion, but this hangup might be redundant, as no viewer unfamiliar with Dickinson or Davies would search out this film in the first place. Is it enough to say this film is beautiful and deeply understands Dickinson? It’ll be up to each individual viewer with enough patience and curiosity to decide.
Suffice to say, mileage may vary.
Is A Quiet Passion opening weekend worthy?
Fans of Davies’s films or Dickinson’s poems will be in rapture, but the average viewer will be left befuddled.
A Quiet Passion opens Friday, April 14, 2017 at Cineplex Varsity Cinema. Check their website for more information.