Terse and expressively gorgeous, the 19th-century poems of Emily Dickinson offer eloquent studies of her passions, eccentricities and concerns. They are much of what we know about her. With a hunger for privacy that verged on the antisocial, she published little in her lifetime, rarely leaving her family home in adulthood and eventually living as a virtual recluse. Writing about the world experienced not as the eyes do but as the soul must, Dickinson was a real American beauty, a richly intellectual but hardly happy one.
British writer/director Terence Davies offers his conjectures about the enigmatic artist in his graceful, BBC-style period drama “A Quiet Passion.” He combines incisive social history, Christian theology, well-adapted quotations from her works and a healthy amount of imagination. The package brings her into clear focus from the beginning of her adulthood to her death.
Emma Bell plays the young Dickinson in her devoutly religious boarding school, an outspoken free thinker in the first bloom of womanhood. When her strict and severe teacher asks whether the students are ready to give their lives to God, Dickinson announces her doubts with the kind of blithe rebellion against Christianity that she expressed both in her work and life. She favors basic morality, not dogma delivered from on high.
That verbal duel, so ironically playful yet so serious, establishes Dickinson’s independent attitude without the feminist tilt that some of her followers assume. When the part of the mature Dickinson is handed over to Cynthia Nixon, we see her resisting her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), a prominent lawyer who runs his family through calm debate and muted management. Davies, who prefers understated dialogue and slow, smooth takes, introduces drip by drip the constricting nature of a rebellious child’s life with a taskmaster father 150 years ago. “Your soul is no trivial matter,” he warns. “I agree, father,” she says with a smile perhaps less than genuine. “That’s why I’m so meticulous in guarding its independence.”
This is the most humorous film the usually dramatic Davies has made. When a photographer asks Edward to smile, he thunders, “I am smiling!” Dickinson’s even more rebellious friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) is a highly amusing coquette who reveals her devious tactics to win the wars against prospective husbands through sharp, blistering snark. When Dickinson adopts that style herself, her righteous indignation sours it. Her conversations turn to acerbic swordfights.
Nixon delivers a masterful performance, giving us a heroine who can’t cease digging herself into ever deeper holes. She’s never out of step with the film’s graceful pace and narrative development. She grows a bit more troubled and stoic in scene after scene as age and illness tap her shoulder increasingly hard. It’s surely not a spoiler to mention that the finale is her death. The big surprise of it is how intense her suffering becomes, with Nixon writhing in tragic agonies. It’s the sort of farewell we should expect from the fatalistic Davies, but few could have expected it to hit so hard.
A Quiet Passion
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material.