'A Quiet Passion' explores the contradictions of poet Emily Dickinson's life

By Stephanie Merry The Washington Post - Updated: June 9, 2017 at 10:25 am • Published: June 9, 2017 0
photo - (L-r) Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in "A Quiet Passion." MUST CREDIT: Hurricane Films-Music Box Films
(L-r) Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in "A Quiet Passion." MUST CREDIT: Hurricane Films-Music Box Films

Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Ducan Duff; directed by Terence Davies; 126 minutes; PG-13 for disturbing images of war casualties and brief suggestive material.

In "A Quiet Passion," period-drama veteran Terence Davies ("Sunset Song," "The House of Mirth") turns his attention to Emily Dickinson. The prolific poet didn't have the most cinematic existence, spending most days holed up inside her childhood home. But that doesn't lessen the impact of this tribute to her genius, which is by turns funny, tragic and thrilling.

The writer-director uses the poet's life to explore the stifling societal norms of the day: the puritanical piety and rigid decorum that made Dickinson feel so painfully out of place.

"You are alone in your rebellion, Ms. Dickinson," a headmistress tells a young Emily (Emma Bell), who has some questions about religion despite her strong faith. It won't be the last time Emily gets admonished for challenging the prevailing wisdom. And yet she does accept some sense of order.

Emily has her own sense of right and wrong. When she and her father sit down for breakfast, he complains about a dirty plate. Emily picks it up as if to inspect it, then smashes it on the table. Problem solved.

Cynthia Nixon plays the adult Emily, and we follow her through the minor bursts of action that break up the monotony of her life. Emily's quick-witted best friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), provides much comic relief, with her barbed repartee and outrageous views. Thefamily's God-fearing friends also provide laughs.

The lightness early in the movie gives way to something darker, though, as Vryling marries and moves away, and then Emily's father dies. Her only solaces are her kindhearted sister (Jennifer Ehle) and writing. The movie is punctuated by Dickinson's writing, read in voice-over by Nixon. At times, she recites it in character, looking at her brother's new baby, for example, and saying, "I'm nobody! Who are you?"

The drama is marked by a stilted formality, but it works, especially in a story about how suffocating customs can be for a woman who avoids marriage and stays with her immediate family.

Davies is a master of the slow build, lyrically evoking the dreaminess and gravity of his subject and her verse. In one scene, Emily imagines a man ascending the stairs to greet her, but Davies also uses images of carnage that could have been pulled from the civil war. These contradictions carry into Nixon's portrayal, conveying a disarming sense of vulnerability even when she's most obstinate. It's not easy to do justice to such a beloved, enigmatic artist, but "A Quiet Passion" was worth the wait.

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