British filmmaker Terence Davies’ biopic ‘A Quiet Passion’ is a mesmerizing portrait of a tortured artist. Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) embodies Emily Dickinson whose writing established her as one of the world’s greatest poets. It is the sense of isolation in her life that feels so overpowering. She remained a spinster and recluse at her parent’s estate throughout her 55-year-old life. She was a prolific writer but sadly never had more than a dozen of her 1,800 poems published. Her fame as a poet was posthumous. Davies has crafted a poetically moving story about a misunderstood and unflinching genius. You can say that Emily was a staunch feminist before it was fashionable to be one. ‘A Quiet Passion’ will satisfy cinephiles that enjoy an artsy period piece drama.
So how do you make Emily’s life interesting? She never married, never became famous while alive and never left the house. Davies focuses on time and how it creeps up on us all. The film spans about 37 years from her teenage years to her death in 1886. The story begins with the youthful Emily (Emma Bell) being defiant to a strict teacher at Mount Holyoke college. She struggled all of her life with organized religion. She’s asked to leave the school and return home to her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. When her father attempts to subdue her religious independence she asserts, “I will not be forced to piety.” She convinces her father to let her stay up late at night to write her poetry. This practice would never be allowed if she were married.
Davies uses computer generated imagery to show the passage of time. Through a harsh sequence, we see the faces of Emily’s entire family go through an aging process. When the transformation is complete for Emily, Cynthia Nixon inhabits her into adulthood. As she becomes a prolific writer, she withdraws more from any semblance of a social life. It’s funny to watch her hurl verbal barbs at a male suitor. As time marches on, Emily’s wit sharpens but her tolerance for society’s hypocrisies have lessened. She tries to convince herself that solitude is far better than a poor match. She becomes smitten with the married Reverend Charles Wadsworth (Eric Loren) who praises her poetry. When Emily and her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) invite the reverend and his wife over for tea, the pious couple refuses any stimulants like tea or coffee. Soon after Emily gets the news that the reverend moves to San Francisco to run a parish. Emily writes, “We outgrow love like other things / And put it in the drawer, / Till it an antique fashion shows / Like costumes grandsires wore.”
Davies captures Emily’s isolation and intelligence perfectly. She marched to the beat of her own drum and created poetry that transcended her mortal coil. Nixon delivers a brilliant performance. There is an emotional honesty to her work. The way she embodies the character is haunting. The cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister is real genius throughout the film. In the beginning, there is a lot of light that pours into the scenes. This represents Emily’s youth as hopeful and as the film goes on, it gets darker and darker as Emily fears abandonment. The camera follows the characters slowly through the house and gardens. It perfectly captures the solitude of the family. The use of natural light from the fireplace or candles gives the scenes at night an authenticity. As family members begin to die, you see Emily withdrawing further and further from the world.
Davies captures the wit and eccentricity of Emily Dickinson. The film works thanks to Nixon bringing the misunderstood poet to life. ‘A Quiet Passion’ allows the actress, who shot to fame as Miranda on HBO’s ‘Sex and the City,’ to show off her acting chops. If you are a fan of period piece dramas, you don’t want to miss this definitive biopic on the life of Emily Dickinson.