‘A Quiet Passion’ shows what made Emily Dickinson tick

An exquisite film by Terence Davies
Cynthia Nixon (left) and Jennifer Ehle in Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” a film about the life of Emily Dickinson.
Cynthia Nixon (left) and Jennifer Ehle in Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” a film about the life of Emily Dickinson.

My life closed twice before its close —
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

How do you make a movie about Emily Dickinson? How do you capture the inner flame of a woman whose outward life mostly consisted of parlor conversation with her family and quiet hours spent writing poetry in her room? How do you dramatize a life lived almost entirely in the mind — and a death she foretold in poems so devastatingly intimate, it was as if a curtain lifted for her into another world? Well, for starters, you cast Cynthia Nixon.

Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” takes its time getting started; its early scenes, with first a teenage Dickinson (Emma Bell, her performance blending seamlessly into Nixon’s), then with Nixon as the adult poet, feel disarmingly stilted; the precise formality of the language seeming to create a barrier. But stick with it, and keep your eyes on Nixon; a still, gentle-voiced presence whose eyes glow like blue embers. 

Her Emily is outwardly serene, often seeming to smile at a private joke; yet she conveys the sensation of something furious buried deep within. But this is no fragile waif; just listen to her admonish the editor who published a few of her poems: “Sir,” she says, in tones that could slice paper, “you have altered some of my punctuation.”

Davies, whose previous films — all meticulously beautiful — include “The House of Mirth,” “The Deep Blue Sea” and “Sunset Song,” has made a quiet specialty of an unfashionable genre: the period literary film. “A Quiet Passion” isn’t for everyone; outwardly, not much happens other than watching a woman get older, become more reclusive (“I have become embittered,” she says), struggle with a mysterious illness, and one day die in the bedroom in which she lived much of her life. But there are moments of astonishing lyricism; particularly that death sequence, in which a nearly feral Dickinson sees — and lets us see — a terrifying, exquisite vision.

Nixon, speaking one of Dickinson’s most famous poems in voice-over, conveys a sense of gentle wonder; speaking the words as if they’re just now emerging and yet were always there.

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

‘A Quiet Passion’

Directed by: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff.
Rated: PG-13    
Grade: A
Running time: 126 minutes

Categories: Entertainment

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