A Quiet Passion **** / *****
Directed by: Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies.
Starring: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson), Keith Carradine (Father - Edward Dickinson), Jodhi May (Susan Gilbert), Joanna Bacon (Mother - Emily Norcross), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Emma Bell (Young Emily Dickinson),
Benjamin Wainwright (Young Austin Dickinson), Annette Badland (Aunt Elizabeth), Rose Williams (Young Vinnie Dickinson), Noémie Schellens (Mabel Loomis Todd), Miles Richardson (Pastor), Eric Loren (Reverend Wadsworth), Stefan Menaul (Mr. Emmons), Sara Vertongen (Miss Lyon), Simone Milsdochter (Mrs. Wadsworth).
How does a filmmaker go about making a biopic of a famous person about which little is known? Emily Dickinson is one of the best known poets in the English language – arguably America’s greatest poet ever – and yet she lived a quiet life, pretty much in obscurity – only a few of her poems being published anonymously in a small, local paper run by a friends of her fathers. She died in 1886, having never married, and barely having left Amherst, Massachusetts – and in later years, barely leaving her bedroom. It wasn’t until after her death that her sister discovered her poems, and had them published – they haven’t gone out of print since.
Dickinson’s life then, despite her poetry, would seem like it wouldn’t really lend itself to a movie of her life. Yet in the hands of Terrence Davies, A Quiet Passion becomes a wonderful film. Davies was inarguably the right filmmaker for the task – he has often made films that are largely limited to the interior of a single family home (using his home life as fodder for Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), and last year’s Sunset Song, although it had a larger scope than this one, again focused on a single home, and the action inside of it. In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson as a fiercely intelligent, quick witted woman, who was ever loyal to her family. That wit gets in her trouble from time-to-time – although Dickinson was religious, her idea of religion differed from some in the clergy. Her deep love for her family came along with high moral standards for them as well – standards that lead her to feel betrayed if you cannot live up to them.
As with every film Davies has ever made, A Quiet Passion is a beautiful film – wonderful shot by Florian Hoffmeister, who worked with Davies before on The Deep Blue Sea. This film doesn’t allow Davies and Hoffmeister the opportunities for beautiful shots of rain soaked London like that film did, yet they still find a way to make the film – all set in Dickinson home look interesting.
The film is uncommonly wordy for a Davies film – his film more often than not show, don’t tell, their stories, through montage and music. But it is appropriate for this film that Davies screenplay takes so much joy in language – and its precise usage – as Dickinson does in her poetry. The film seems mannered at first – perhaps a little over-written. Yet, the film is so beautifully performed, that it doesn’t take long to fall into its rhythms of the film. Nixon is great, but almost as good is Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie – who is ever smiling, but is made of tougher stuff than she appears, Catherine Bailey as their friend Vryling Buffam, who is outwardly rebellious, although more conventional than she first appears.
A Quiet Passion is an odd film – which befits the subject matter. Dickinson didn’t lead the type of life that normally gets the biopic treatment, so it would stand to reason that she wouldn’t be subject of a normal film about her life. A Quiet Passion is something altogether different, and wonderful. I’ve typically been cooler on Davies than many – I admire his work more than I like it – but for me this is his best since The House of Mirth (which will always be my favorite of his films). An odd film, but a vital one.