Though descended from Puritans, Emily Dickinson could never quite come around to the spiritually constricted world of mid-19th-century New England. So the world eventually had to come around to her – unfortunately, well after her death. In her lifetime fewer than a dozen of her poems saw publication; and those few had their eccentric orthography relentlessly edited, their acute sensibilities about life and death, nature and the transcendent cluelessly mansplained as sentimentality. But the Modernists “got” her – insofar as her rapt apprehension of sublimity cloaked in mundane moments can be “gotten” at all, outside the music of her lines. Does anyone still question the belief that Dickinson has no rival but Whitman as America’s greatest poet?
Unraveling the rigorous intentionality of Dickinson’s challenging art took some time, though. The results being so deeply rewarding, it behooves us to accord similarly patient attention to Terence Davies’ powerful biopic, A Quiet Passion, which also takes its time in peeling back the layers of the poet’s soul to afford glimpses of her essence. I write this as a sort of warning, because the first act of the film is stylistically off-putting, laden with arch dialogue, stiffly delivered: far too “stagey” for the cinematic medium, even when wittily written. It doesn’t help that Emma Bell’s acting as the schoolgirl Emily leaves much to be desired (including lapses into New Yorky diphthongs that the British director apparently failed to catch). But if you’ll proceed on the premise that Davies’ narrative approach is also intentional, you will find the second half of the movie deeply moving. Hang in there for Florian Hoffmeister’s stunningly deliberate and detailed cinematography as well: an early clue that this will be no prettified costume epic with a golden aura suffusing every drawing room.
When we first meet Dickinson onscreen – an agnostic fish out of water amidst the pious schoolmarms at Mount Holyoke, swiftly liberated by her family to enjoy exposure to broader culture on a sojourn to Boston – we are seeing her outer layers: an Emily unfamiliar to posterity, reasonably sociable and good-humored, even if not quite an extrovert. The director seems to be making a point of the fact that Dickinson’s friendships were of profound importance to her, even if she pursued them almost exclusively on paper in her later years.
But one by one, the people to whom the young genius opened her heart and mind pull away from her, whether through marriage or death or lack of empathy or excessive subscription to the rules of the day about male and female roles and capacities. Unsurprisingly, considering her preferred subject matter, death spends quite a lot of time hovering over the Dickinson household; and the medicine of the day holds few satisfactory answers to disease and depression. Accumulating emotional losses, along with the recurring pain of kidney disease, turn the poet ever more inward. It is in her interior landscapes that she finds ecstasy, and the movie finds its feet. By first emphasizing the triviality and artificiality of the upper-class social whirl, Davies sets us up to accompany Emily on her journey with a will, and an understanding that the truths she pursues are worth the sacrifices she makes.
Cynthia Nixon is extraordinary in her portrayal of Dickinson, from her post-university years until her death. Even in some awkwardly wannabe-Austenesque moments when the younger Emily is enjoying trading barbed ripostes about the social scene with her worldly-wise friend Vryling Buffum (Catherine Bailey), what she does with her face rises far above the shortcomings of the screenplay. And as she dives deeper into the older Emily – often angry, racked by self-reproach, craving appreciation even as she is repelled by the prospect of fame or the strictures of marriage, holding both herself and her family to superhuman standards of behavior – the audience is treated to a revelatory process that is both grueling and exhilarating, all brought to us by a highly skilled thespian working very hard indeed.
If you’re irritated by movies like Terms of Endearment in which the heroine dies a picturesque death from a wasting disease, every hair in place and eyeshadow unsmudged, A Quiet Passion will suit you much better: Nixon gives her all to depicting Emily’s stumbles and seizures as her health declines. It’s as if the poet’s reclusive later life were merely the eggshell enclosing a firebird, ragingly ready to be born. As the character rejects society’s expectations that her life be “decorous,” so actor and director together allow their Emily onscreen to be uncompromisingly real and at times ugly.
Most of the supporting cast also does a fine job, particularly Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s steadfastly supportive younger sister Lavinia. The film raises more questions than it answers about the inner lives of others in the Dickinson circle: We see why Emily never married, but why the more adaptable Vinnie as well? Why did their mother (Joanna Bacon) let life pass her by so profoundly, and how did her disengagement influence her elder daughter’s withdrawal from society? How did their “liberal” father (Keith Carradine) and brother Austin (Duncan Duff) earn the two sisters’ loyalty and tolerance, considering how callously they seem to wear their male privilege?
Arguably, it’s a sign of great modern storytelling when a tale leaves threads untidily and intriguingly leading in many directions that are never pursued, never neatly tied up. Though not much “happens” plotwise, and the pacing is very 19th-century, there is much more matter crammed in here than one two-hour movie can thoroughly explore. One could easily imagine a few TV seasons’ worth of examination of the rest of the Dickinson family, Emily’s friends and influences. But A Quiet Passion keeps its focus on the woman herself, and on the apotheosis of her art as loss and suffering hone her core down to diamond hardness of mind and ineffable permeability of spirit. She could not ever have been anyone other than she was, ultimately, and her readers’ own lives are far richer for it. Viewers of this film will be enriched as well.