‘A Quiet Passion’ a study in Emily Dickinson’s passions

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Cynthia Nixon stars as the poet Emily Dickinson (left), and Jennifer Ehle stars as her sister Vinnie in “A Quiet Passion.” | Music Box Films

It’s a poet’s lot not to feel as others do, and to feel what they do, in all its strangeness, more deeply. In the abstract, it’s something romantic, if not venerated at the time then after the fact. That has certainly held true for Emily Dickinson, who only posthumously grew into a towering figure in American literature. Even still, she is a woman who is described as “reclusive” before she’s ever called “genius,” a childless spinster haunting her family home in white.

Director Terence Davies dispenses of any gaudy romantic trappings and makes something much more beautiful in “A Quiet Passion,” a delicate and measured drama that plumbs the depths of the poet’s strange heart and the agony of her intelligence.

It’s not a time or place that respects either (though what time or place does). But 19th-century Amherst, Mass., is resonant with Puritanism, and even as a schoolgirl, Davies’ Dickinson (played as an adult by Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City”) struggles to own her soul — one that is not wired to tread a traditional path.

She lives a reserved but nevertheless full life with her family, siblings Vinnie and Austin (Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff), melancholic mother (Joanna Bacon) and domineering father (Keith Carradine). They share an enviable intimacy, even in argument. Though they don’t always understand Emily, they make room for her to lead her “minor” life of letters. Her father voices disapproval at female performers and overtures of women’s suffrage, but nevertheless allows Emily command of the quiet house from 3 a.m. until dawn for writing — as no husband ever would.

Her contained life of comforting familiarity twists her over time, until she’s as fearful of change as if it were death. Marriages and moves cripple her. Embittered by her lack of recognition in the literary community, she begins to build up defenses against an uncaring world. When actual deaths do start to come, they do so with a vengeance, and the Emily of legend — wraithlike, clad in white, speaking to visitors through half-closed doors, her face growing increasingly pallid — begins to emerge. It is agony — not romance.

Missteps are few but grating. In fleshing out Emily’s small social circle, the film overshoots into scripted caricature, especially in Emily’s exchanges of witty repartee with a brash, proto-feminist socialite who’s less a person and more a projection of what Emily wishes she could be. The dialogue and delivery ring false in a film about a writer who always strives for truth.

But the camera always comes back to Nixon and Emily’s small but deeply felt world. The candlelight kisses every textural detail of her smart New England home — the linen and wood, draperies and crystal. In one quietly devastating scene the camera fixes in close on Emily as a beloved friend reads her verse, a carousel of emotions passing her face in a few agonizingly quiet seconds. It is both nothing and everything.

“A Quiet Passion” is a film that feels like one of its subject’s poems — expansive in its intimacy and burrowing deep, its strange cadence lingering in the mind long after the final verse.

Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network


Music Box Films presents a film written and directed by Terence Davies. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material). Running time: 126 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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