A Quiet Passion stars Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon as the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. Like other biopics that contrive to tell a story of a life entire, the film lacks natural momentum and a central conflict. Rather, in small stories of anger and loss, we watch Dickinson retreat into bitterness and despair; we see her rebellious spirit repeatedly crushed in the face of death, spiritual anguish, loneliness and chronic physical pain. (This ripsnorter opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee.)
Nixon is remarkable as Dickinson. She impressed in the underappreciated 2015 indie gem James White, and her career's second wave appears to be gathering force. As Dickinson, she portrays a woman through multiple decades of adult life, a woman shaped by the moral codes of the day, but one who's also probing, antagonistic and painfully self-aware — her mouth often curls with questions soon to be posed.
While the movie ultimately satisfies, we suspect that if this film were viewed on Netflix, casual viewers might not have the patience to endure. After an opening scene in which the young Emily (Emma Bell) is deemed a "no hoper" in the echoey schoolhouse of Mount Holyoke Women's Seminary, we trudge through 30 minutes of mish-mashed scenes: conversations about gender and art at the opera; impolitic remarks with a pious aunt; Pride & Prejudice-y banter about marriage prospects. (The Pride & Prejudice comparison is especially apt, given that Emily's sister Lavinia is played by Jennifer Ehle, who memorably played Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC miniseries.)
The dialogue, which from time to time is interspersed with voiceover of Dickinson's own verse, is overly stiff. Nixon's instinct is to play the script naturally, despite the language's formality, but her scene partners often recite their lines like high schoolers trying Shakespeare. The film's best scene is not stiff at all. It's an early morning exchange between Emily and her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) discussing the downsides of marriage and the gnawing sadness of a being alone: "You have a life," Emily tells Susan, not unkindly. "I have a routine... For those of us who live minor lives, and are deprived of a particular kind of love, we know best how to starve. We deceive ourselves, and then others. It is the worst kind of lie."
That's a powerhouse scene, and that's a sorrow that you feel in your bones. It's one of the few moments that you may tear up right alongside the characters on screen. In other moments, you wonder if Terrence Davies, who also wrote the script, fell into the trap of assuming a movie about a literary figure must itself be "literary."
The movie looks quite good, despite its close quarters. Virtually every scene takes place in Amherst, Massachusetts, and most of them in the Dickinson family home. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, who also shot Davies' 2011 film Deep Blue Sea, creates rich and shadowy tableaus, dramatizing such minor activities as the climbing of a staircase or the closing of a door. The film's most striking visual moment is early on, when the Dickinson family, sitting for daguerrotypes one by one, age imperceptibly as the camera zooms in.
As a character study, A Quiet Passion faithfully shows the Dickinson that those who know and love her poems would expect to encounter — a woman of fierce intelligence and unsteady constitution preoccupied with questions of mortality.