Terence Davies portrays what the inner life of the American poet Emily Dickinson may have been like, defying the misconceptions commonly held regarding her, and featuring a searing performance by Cynthia Nixon.
First impressions may be the most lasting, but contrary to popular belief, they’re often wrong. In the case of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, many who have been made to read her verses in school have been deceived by the simple, often sing-song type rhythms, the delicacy of language, and the story of Dickinson herself as a shy recluse, to think of her as an ineffectual shrinking violet kind of a poet. But when we take the time to study her work, and immerse ourselves in it, we find poetry that is suffused with darkness, loneliness, uncertainty, and fearless musings on death and immortality. We see a deep and concentrated gaze into the mysteries of life and human nature.
Dickinson was always attached to home and family, but it was only at about the age of 28 that she began her long isolation indoors at her Amherst, Massachusetts home, which continued until her death at 56. With so little to go on, and much of it disputed, how could her life be made into an interesting movie? The English writer and director Terence Davies has made the attempt in a new film called A Quiet Passion. Davies’s career has been marked by careful attention to the inner life of characters, and in this film he boldly crafts a vision of what it might have been like to be this enigmatic and fascinating poet.
We first meet her when she’s 17, attending the Mount Holyoke Girl’s Seminary. A severe teacher instructs those in her class who have been saved to go to the right of the room. Then those who hope to be saved are asked to go to the left. Emily remains standing in the middle. When angrily confronted, she says she’s not spiritually awake yet, and therefore is unable to honestly answer either way. Her rigorous honesty, along with her firm belief in independence of soul, both of which are often viewed by outsiders as defiance, will remain defining traits through the remainder of the film.
After Emily reaches adulthood, she is played by Cynthia Nixon, a longtime veteran character actor who gets the role of a lifetime here, and brings absolute conviction to her part. Emily is a loving person but tolerates no hypocrisy, and her exacting standards sometimes frustrate those closest to her, including her cheerful and caring younger sister Lavinia, played with marvelous skill by Jennifer Ehle. Keith Carradine plays her father Edward, a prominent Amherst lawyer who is enough of a free thinker to encourage Emily’s ideas, and her poetry—but she even goes too far for him at times. The older brother, Austin, played by Duncan Duff, becomes a source of family conflict and disappointment. Jodhi May has a small but in its own way devastating turn as Austin’s wife and lifelong friend of Emily’s, Susan Gilbert.
Given the sparse information on the poet’s life, Davies indulges in some alterations and inventions, most notably elevating a real but obscure friend of Lavinia’s, a young woman with the marvelous name of Vryling Buffam, into a friend of Emily’s whose unconventional views on society and religion support Dickinson’s playful and rebellious tendencies. Buffam is played with great charm by Catherine Bailey.
The real substance of the film lies in the poet’s inner struggles, which build inexorably towards an isolation from the world that is both painful and ecstatic. Davies’ depiction of this hermetic 19th century existence within doors brings to life a sense of impending darkness, with Cynthia Nixon’s reciting of Dickinson’s poetry in voiceover acting as prayer and incantation. The central performance keeps building and becoming stronger. Nixon’s portrayal of Emily’s determination and anguish transfixes the viewer with its intensity.
A Quiet Passion replaces any weak first impression we may have had of this great poet with a truer portrait of intriguing depth and power.