Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May. Directed by Terence Davies. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. 2017.
Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion approaches the life of poet Emily Dickinson with an astonishing sense of understanding its subject. Dickinson was, famously, guarded about her personal life, so that sense of understanding is a coup for the writer/director. The character speaks in her real-life counterpart’s typically witty and philosophical barbs. Dickinson was one of the more outspoken feminist voices of her time, righteously obsessed with ideas of agency and independence in a time when the patriarchal society frowned upon such activities. For a while, Davies’ film rejects the usual biographical elements that accompany a period piece about an historical figure, and even when the film must confront the events that led both to Dickinson’s late-life reclusion from outward society and ultimate death in 1886, the film never settles.
Even at a younger age, Emily (Emma Bell) was rebellious against a strict, religious upbringing. Deistic of a higher power, whom, she believed, would be less than uninterested in her petty existence if it even existed, she rejected the societal powers that might direct her to be in answer to men. As an older woman (played by Cynthia Nixon), she lives much by the same code as before, in distrust of the idea of marriage, lest it place her in the servitude of a man. She feels her intellect is enough to steer her right and conducts herself in exactly the manner that she feels befits that intellect while in the presence of men.
The biographical elements that do exist here contribute to the little plot that, thankfully, exists. Her father Edward (Keith Carradine) is disapproving of roughly her every move, unless he feels it will bring honor to their family, such as her wish from a young age to write for the Springfield Republican. Her mother Emily Norcross (Joanna Bacon) slowly deteriorates from an unspoken illness and attendant despair that consistently leaves the rest of the family reeling. Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) joins the family’s law practice, marries the charming Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), and later, carries on an affair with the alluring Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellerts) that will have lasting impact on Emily. Her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) remains loyal to Emily’s interests, even as the latter has trouble remaining grateful for the support.
We get the sense of an entire person through these events, which are guided by Davies’ perfectly attuned ear for the dialogue of the time, rich with meaning that, it seems, has been lost with the evolution of modern language. This aspect will alienate some viewers, but it’s crucial for our sense of insight into this woman. It also helps that Nixon, whose performance is phenomenal, knows seemingly instinctively how to deliver this dialogue in a matter that seems as natural as it can be. That goes for all the actors, and Davies’ understated camera utilize medium shots and close-ups to superb effect. A Quiet Passion is an observant character study of a woman, an author, and a poet who was, well, quite the character.