A Quiet Passion Is a Biopic Told With Poetic Scope

Terence Davies’s new film essays the reclusive, and sometimes frustrating, life of the poet Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon.

Cynthia Nixon (left) as Emily Dickinson, and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, in A Quiet Passion (Music Box Films)

Leave it to an intimate biopic of the reclusive 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson to feature the most powerful special effect of the year. The first 20 minutes of A Quiet Passion follow Dickinson as a teenager, played by Emma Bell; she attends a Christian boarding school at which she is not exactly impudent, but certainly eager to challenge and pick apart any dictum her teachers throw at her. She writes with fervor, attends the opera with her family, and astonishes her disapproving aunt with her untamed intellectual curiosity. “I shall pray for you all,” her aunt tuts upon leaving the homestead. “And remember, keep atheism at bay, and watch the clock that ticks for us all.”

With that, the writer-director Terence Davies sets the clock ticking, and tilts his film away from this traditional biopic territory and into something far more mesmerizing. One by one, each member of Emily’s family sits for a daguerreotype, and the camera slowly pushes in on them, their features subtly morphing through the passage of time. Some, like her father Edward (played by Keith Carradine), only add wrinkles and lose a little hair; others, like Emily, her brother Austin, and her sister Vinnie, turn into new actors. The effect is astonishing, and not even because of the seamlessness of the transition between Bell and Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson as an adult.

These silent, slow shots evoke the frightening feeling of life slipping away, of exuberance lost and experience gained. There’s a poetic scope that feels entirely out of the ordinary for such a cloistered period biopic; a sense of the magnificent beauty of being alive, coupled with the melancholy that comes with years passing. If summarized, A Quiet Passion might sound like a rather staid experience—a stuffy, educational museum piece. But this is a wonderful work of cinema that doesn’t offer the bullet points of Dickinson’s reclusive existence so much as it captures her spirit.

Davies’s script works to sweep away many of the clichéd notions about Dickinson: that she was some sort of caustic loon, shuttered up in her room writing on scraps of paper and rejecting social contact. Her life certainly defied a typical storytelling arc—she never married, never grew famous while alive, and gradually withdrew from all public life as she got older. But Davies is focused on the ticks of the clock anyway, jumping from mundane interactions with her family and friends to more seismic events (like the affair between her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd, the women who eventually published editions of Dickinson’s work).

As Dickinson, Nixon gives a vivid performance of someone simultaneously invigorated by ideas and intellect, but frequently deprived of ways to direct them. Her work is either met with confusion or entirely ignored and dismissed. Her skepticism about religion raises many an eyebrow (even though she does not dismiss the idea of God, more the stifling rules established in his name). Her nerviness around people, and her inability to lock her opinions away as might be expected of a Massachusetts woman in the mid-19th century, makes her both a curiosity and a cautionary figure.

Davies’s film spans some 37 years, but after that early transition from youth to adulthood, the director doesn’t submit to easy montages or cheap bits of expositional dialogue to fill in the blanks. Viewers only perceive time passing gradually, as her parents die and her brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (a marvelous Jennifer Ehle) begin to nurse her through the illnesses that plagued her later on. Nixon recites passages of Dickinson’s work in voice-over, but A Quiet Passion isn’t about the poet’s discovery and her eventual, posthumous fame.

As Emily grows older and sicker, and her life becomes more embittered and remote, A Quiet Passion abandons narrative altogether and hints at transcendence. The cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s gorgeous camerawork, and the soundtrack (consisting of classical pieces) do most of the heavy lifting, suggesting Dickinson’s connection to a grander force—be it her mighty, largely unacknowledged creativity or something spiritual—without abandoning the trappings of her Amherst homestead. Davies’s biopic is a brilliant chronicling of a life lived quietly, one that is sweeping in its emotional depth rather than its narrative scope.