Emily Dickinson is regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, although the distinction wasn’t made until after her passing. Aside from a handful of poems published in newspapers – edited and without credit ““ her work was reserved for her personal collection, hidden in a chest amongst her belongings. Dickinson’s sister, who discovered her works after her death in 1886, eventually published the work in a three-volume collection of books. The rest, as they say, is history and Dickinson posthumously became one of the world’s most highly regarded writers.
Adapting her life for film might have seemed like an appealing idea if conjured in a spontaneous burst of inspiration, but when you explore beyond the legend, what’s left is an ordinary life bereft of romance. She was a modest woman who resided on her family’s property and lived a reclusive life. Considered to be free-spirited and emotionally temperamental, she struggled to comprehend the world around her, whereby notions beyond her perception were deflected with hostility and self- loathing. And so, with very little flexibility for a overarching narrative, director Terence Davies (The House Of Mirth) focuses his energy on the characters and has, in turn, created a performance-driven piece that is only as strong as its players… which is very strong in deed.
Emily Dickinson is the type of role that I imagine actors would fight tooth and nail to play. Her character demands unnerved commitment from whoever steps into her shoes. With evocative New English dialogue and a heavy psychological character arc, Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) would have seemed the least likely candidate in my mind, and yet she delivers an outstanding performance that is as equally joyous as it is sorrowful. She lights up the screen as she interprets the character’s psychological journey from an idealistic young woman with high aspirations to a lonely crestfallen woman tortured by her own personal failings. It’s a tough act, no doubt, and Nixon delivers it with ease. Her ongoing transition throughout the film is subtle and discrete, and I often caught myself reflecting on where her performance began in an unrewarded effort to determine the points of adjustment.
The rest of the cast are good, with particular strength coming from Jennifer Ehle (The King’s Speech) as Dickinson’s admiring sister and Keith Carradine (Madam Secretary) as her kindly father. Given the dominance of Nixon’s central character, there is little for the remaining players to do and their counteraction provides Nixon with security and support that an emotionally taxing performance must rely on. They share a strong rapport with each other and their dynamic on screen is sincere.
The production design is modest, but effective, its lack of polish providing an authentic aesthetic. Where many filmmakers would exploit the genre with romanticism and grandeur, Davies opts for a less pretentious direction. It is an American story and yet its texture and sentiment feels more European. I watched it with the work of Patrice Leconte in mind, grateful for all of the attention being placed on character, rather than style. That’s not to say that A Quiet Passion is without it – to the contrary. The attention to detail in recreating Dickinson’s homestead is as accurate as possible, or so I have read, and the setting in which the story unfolds feels homely. The ‘less is more’ approach to the design is to the film’s advantage.
Furthermore, the film is unexpectedly funny. Dickinson’s candour and wit are explored to much hilarity, and the first two acts are particularly fun. This was not a quality I had anticipated, but it was certainly a very welcome surprise.
A Quiet Passion tells an ordinarily mundane story with enthusiasm and earnestness, and showcases one of the year’s most fascinating performances. Admittedly, I had never given Cynthia Nixon much consideration. I now have a newfound respect for her talent, as well as a better understanding into the complex mind of one of literature’s most celebrated figures.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10