Cinematic tellings of true stories of an artistic genius can often fall at the all-important hurdle of successfully showing off its subject’s talent and mind without trite catchphrases or montages. A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ look at the life of Emily Dickinson (played here by Cynthia Nixon), does not suffer from this problem, and though it may falter elsewhere, its central study of Dickinson’s thwarted ambition and unrecognised genius is intelligently observed and superbly acted by Nixon. Taking in decades of Dickinson’s life, from her time as a young woman in seminary school (where she’s played by Emma Bell) to her eventual untimely death at the hands of kidney failure.
It’s Nixon’s central performance that holds this loosely threaded film together, tragic and deeply felt. She gives depth and layers to this historical figure that bring Dickinson to searing life, and elevates the better of the supporting players – Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s sister Lavinia and Keith Carradine as her father – to craft a richly believable family dynamic. As the incredibly misogyny of the 19th Century prevents Emily from being recognised, her sickness and partly self-imposed loneliness compound her lack of respect into a hard-shelled bitterness, which Nixon conveys with remarkable relatability and insight, keeping Dickinson from being off-putting in her misery.
Nixon, Ehle, and Carradine make for softly compelling leads, but the rest of the cast can’t boast the same consistency. Joanna Bacon and Annette Badland are great as Emily’s mother and aunt respectively, but Duncan Duff makes a real hash of his role as brother Austin and Catherine Bailey is nearly film-ruiningly awful as the ostensibly forward-thinking and witty Vryling Buffam. Buffam’s banter with Emily has all the bouncy rhythms that one would associate with period piece humour, but is overwritten to the point of being gibberish and delivered with a strange and smug lack of real conviction.
Thankfully, Buffam departs at the end of the first act, and Austin’s presence isn’t particularly keenly felt aside from a really botched scene between him and his father arguing over Austin being allowed to go to fight in the Civil War. Not only is it overacted on Duff’s part, but the subsequent sequence recounting the toll of the war is tonally off and feels very cheap. Keeping the scope small works for A Quiet Passion, with Davies’ trademark drawing room family dioramas translating really well to luxurious and spacious mid-19th Century aristocratic homes.
Some of the extended tracking shots through the living rooms and opera houses may feel slightly indulgent, but they are beautifully shot, and Davies frames much of the film with gorgeous, painterly skill. A very eerie scene showing the aging of the Dickinson family and a static, aerial shot of a funeral are the most obvious highlights but, the war excursion aside, the whole film looks just lovely. DOP Florian Hoffmeister’s very disciplined camera is also used to more distressing effect as Emily’s illness worsens and the begins to succumb to violent seizures. Nixon’s committed performance is vital in selling these protracted moments, and the way they’re filmed makes it look as if Dickinson’s spirit is forcibly escaping her body.
This physical decline dominates A Quiet Passion’s final act, threatening to descend into melodrama occasionally, but generally acting as a powerful capper to a very sad story. Dickinson’s poems are read out in breathy voiceover during key moments throughout the film, and though ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ is a painfully obvious choice for the ending , it doesn’t stop it from being a nicely cathartic moment. Not only does it close out the story in satisfying style, but in leaving the audience with Dickinson’s most enduring legacy, it in some small way gives her the victory that she so completely deserved in life.