Movies about poets are a hard sell. Emily Dickinson (1830-86) lived the quietest of lives in Amherst, Mass., turning out mostly unpublished lyrics that would one day stun the literary world with their originality and modernity. How to convey the contrasts she embodied without sinking into genteel biopic clichés?
English director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) has taken a bold approach. Alternately theatrical and cinematic, stilted and impassioned, A Quiet Passion may not stick tightly to the known facts of Dickinson's biography, but it brings her alive with surprising immediacy. Played by Emma Bell as a teenager and Cynthia Nixon as an adult, the poet emerges as a multifaceted character: a romantic rebel with a geeky secondhand worldliness, intellectually sophisticated and not immune to the giggles.
When we first meet the young Dickinson, she is infuriating an evangelical schoolteacher by refusing to be "saved" — a theme that will resonate throughout the film. In the dourly religious, pleasure-shunning world of 19th-century New England, this Dickinson is a rebel, but not in any facile or anachronistic way. She simply insists on hammering out her own relationship with a higher power.
That also goes for the higher power in her household: her lawyer father (Keith Carradine), whom Emily asks for permission to write her poetry while everyone else sleeps. Mr. Dickinson is no tyrant; the actors make the mutual love and respect between father and daughter palpable. When Emily says a husband would not have granted her such latitude, the viewer begins to understand why so many famous female authors of her era remained single.
The dramatis personae are limited to the Dickinson family and a few intimates, so it's a good thing they're all superlatively acted. With a voice that seems to bubble with suppressed laughter, Nixon shines in a role for which she isn't an obvious choice. She gives Dickinson likably girlish qualities while doing full justice to the poet's harsher moments of cynicism and despair. As her loyal sister, Vinnie, Jennifer Ehle is a wonderful coconspirator, while Carradine and Joanna Bacon, as their gruff-but-decent father and stoically depressive mother, evoke hidden depths with a few short scenes.
Some viewers may find the film oppressively talky: Emily and Vinnie's favorite pastime is witty conversation full of one-upmanship, and their outrageous friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) drops epigrams like Oscar Wilde. Consider, however, that this was a time when face-to-face conversation was widely considered an art form. And back then, well-read, hyper-articulate homebodies didn't have the option of starting a Tumblr.
While Davies' dialogue-heavy script may suggest the theater, he uses his camera at key moments to create effects that could only work on film. In one early scene, the camera rotates slowly around the room as the Dickinson family reads by firelight; when it returns full circle to Emily, her face has undergone a dramatic transformation, from serenity to horror.
What happened? Davies lets us puzzle it out, but, more importantly, he uses this scene to demonstrate how the quietest of lives offers plenty of material for an art that engages with stark questions of morality and mortality. The death scenes in A Quiet Passion are quiet, too, yet they're among the most brutal I've seen in narrative films. By the time Nixon gets to the inevitable voice-over rendition of "Because I could not stop for Death," the film has more than earned it. The over-quoted poem has become exquisitely unsettling again.