Terence Davies’ portrait of poet Emily Dickinson — who died in 1886 at age 55, virginal and virtually unknown — is, like its subject, a strange bird: ethereal but severe, full of dreamy flights and odd formalities. And Nixon vividly telegraphs both her character’s convictions and her deep physical and emotional suffering. Played in early scenes by Emma Bell, Dickinson seems like the kind of young woman who might have become a suffragette firebrand, openly challenging authority and the obedient, God-fearing hypocrisies of her peers. Putting a life of the mind on paper is one thing; finding a way to translate to the screen is a trickier proposition. (Her extreme isolation makes it unsurprising that the few outside connections she does forge have the tortured, feverish intensity of unrequited love.)
Writer-director Davies (The House of Mirth) manages to capture at least some of the metaphysical swoon of Dickinson’s work in a series of beautifully composed images, which is a feat in itself. B
Show Full Article But the movie is also hobbled by its insistent lack of naturalism; characters don’t so much engage each other as speechify in grand, self-aware paragraphs as if every dinner-table musing is being recorded for posterity. But she’s also guided by her own rigid codes and phobias, and Cynthia Nixon embodies the adult Emily as both a radical romantic and a priggish scold, so wedded to her version of moral truth that it almost cracks her open to live in the world like most people do. Though of course some of them will be, and that’s where A Quiet Passion finds its most transcendent moments: in the immortal, extraordinary verses Dickinson left behind. And so, eventually, she doesn’t — and her family, including her stern but loving father (Keith Carradine) and devoted sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), end up a party to her undoing, treating her like a hothouse flower to be carefully tended and protected until she becomes a sort of jittery, self-imposed recluse.