A QUIET PASSION
Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey
From her quiet but determined rebellion against the imposition of religion at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary that she attended as a girl (Emma Bell) to the drawn-out agonies of her deathbed at the age of 56 (Cynthia Nixon), writer/director Terence Davies’ A QUIET PASSION takes us slowly through the small, significant details of poet Emily Dickinson’s narrowly constrained life, contrasting it with the creative breadth and turmoil of her inner world.
It’s a mannered chamber piece, rarely straying beyond the house in Amherst, Massachusetts where she lived out her life with her family, spending her later years in seclusion. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister takes us through shot after beautifully composed shot like Whistler paintings, the women’s pastel-coloured crinolines and parasols in drawing rooms and gardens like so many perfectly proportioned still lifes.
Dickinson’s spare, spiky verse has made her a reputation as one of America’s greatest poets, yet in the patriarchal society of the mid-19th century, she has to ask the permission of her lawyer father (Keith Carradine) to rise early and so that she can write her poetry in the early hours of the morning. Her work was barely published in her lifetime, being dismissed by male editors as “the literature of misery”. Though what she wrote could seem bleak and introspective, it consisted of original meditations in her unique, direct style on the meaning of religion, life and death – difficult absolutes she was not afraid to confront head on.
“I cannot imagine myself beyond my family,” she says, and that is where she stayed, supported by her close relationships with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and mother Emily (Joanna Bacon), as well as her father. Yet Davies’ screenplay portrays her as no meek spinster and Nixon plays her as a witty conversationalist and a natural feminist, unafraid to be stubborn when sticking to her principles.
She makes friends with an outspoken, extrovert friend of the family, Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey), and as they stroll in the garden together, the two women lob aphorisms at each other like a competitive game of ping pong, spoken with a heightened, deliberate delivery. When Buffum marries and moves away, Dickinson is left bereft of stimulating female company and the intimate companionship that she craves but somehow can never allow herself. In later life, she develops an attachment to a married parson, Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), but is so discreet that no one is aware of it, even him, and there is a hideously awkward tea party with him and his dogmatic wife (Simone Milsdochter) before he too moves away.
Cynthia Nixon, far from Miranda and Sex and the City, subtly conveys the contradictions and self-limiting of Dickinson’s complex personality. "Gender is slavery," she declaims. Though she chafes at the social constraints she experiences as a conventional, respectable middle-class woman, imprisoned within a routine instead of a life, she is inwardly revolutionary. “Your anger is a defence against the world,” she says. The film is linked by the insights into her work by Nixon’s voiceover reciting Dickinson’s poems.
As Dickinson ages, her life starts to close in, first with the death of her mother, then her father and then the marriage of her brother. Remaining alone in the big house with just her sister Vinnie, as a painful kidney disease takes hold she becomes more reclusive and embittered.
It’s a fascinating biopic illuminating the quiet life of a very complicated woman who retreats from the world yet is at the mercy of her burning need to keep writing about it no matter what. Seeking independence, almost a hermit in the end, her prolonged suffering can seem like a kind of martyrdom. As the film faithfully tries to recreate the period, it is highly stylised – the dialogue artificially stilted and, though the performances by a mixture of British and American actors are excellent, the scenes can seem somewhat statically staged. To an outside observer, Dickinson’s life could seem cruelly thwarted. However, what comes across in A QUIET PASSION is that, as her life becomes increasingly confined as time passes, perhaps her uniquely fine-tuned conscience could not have allowed her anything more. A QUIET PASSION follows Silent Song and acclaimed director Davies' other praised films The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and Distant Voices, Still Lives.