Terence Davies is no stranger to biographical film, having mined his own life story to great effect in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. The overall tone of his sensitive Emily Dickinson biopic mirrors the great American poet’s contemplative style. The languorous pace may divide audiences, despite some strong performances and memorable camerawork. A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon, opens in 1848 with Dickinson’s family rescuing her from the evangelical Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She had been considered something of an outsider and was chastised for her lack of religion – something she wrestled with for many years.
Dickinson returns to her Amherst home with her beloved family, and there she remains for the rest of her life and the film’s duration. Dickinson never ventured far from her Massachusetts home, apparently she never found a reason to leave, and so Davies focuses on her relationship with her family – the occasional power struggles with her stern father (Keith Carradine), her love for her supportive sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), affection for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and despondency over her ailing, bed-bound mother Emily (Joanna Bacon) as well as an ardent friendship with the feisty Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey).
Dickinson has to ask the permission of her father in order to write poetry and letters during the night and she proves a prolific correspondent. However, most of her letters were destroyed after her death and only a few poems were published in her lifetime. She never married and, considering herself unattractive, became increasingly reclusive and embittered in her final years. She died young, aged just fifty-five, never suspecting that she was to become one of America’s best-known and loved poets. Davies matches Dickinson’s reflective nature with some ponderous takes – especially when the family are in the drawing room reading or crocheting. He admirably succeeds in conveying Dickinson’s stoicism and her frequent internalisation of emotional pain but, at times, A Quiet Passion feels desperately slow.
Although the sisters find succour in their affection for one another, their observance of familial duty is oppressive. Following the strict social mores of the time, they both quietly accept their formal, cloistered existence, rather than attempting to forge a life outside. It is no surprise that Lavinia also remained a spinster. Nixon gives a hugely sympathetic performance and portrays Dickinson’s mental and physical decline with real conviction. She stands out from her fellow actresses, some of whom appear to have graduated from the same school of acting. The men’s exuberant hair, admittedly true to the period, also proves something of a distraction. Dickinson’s life, like many of her poems, was suffused with melancholy.
Davies suggests her sole infatuation was with a rather dull, married clergyman who admires her poetry. It’s only fleetingly touched upon in the film and Dickinson’s obsession appears to come out of nowhere. Similarly, Austin’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellens), who was to posthumously publish Dickinson’s poems, is barely explored and yet it almost destroyed the siblings’ relationship. While Davies vividly captures the period’s austerity and Dickinson’s despair at being misunderstood, there are a few too many scenes of repressed emotion followed by wild outbursts of grief. A Quiet Passion would have benefited from a subtler lightening of the shadows, if only to better appreciate the darkness which was to engulf the reclusive poet.
Lucy Popescu| @lucyjpop