Overview: The story of Emily Dickinson, detailing her childhood and reclusive adulthood. 2016; Hurricane Films; Rated PG-13; 125 minutes.
A Challenging Prospect: Not every film is packaged for mass consumption, or is easy to access. A Quiet Passion is certainly a film of substance, but also one that may prove difficult to connect to on a surface level. It is not a film to be watched passively. There is more underneath than may be noticed on a casual viewing. Even in moments of silence, of which there are many, director Terence Davies is processing a life. A life we think we might know because of its famous name. Because of these moments of quiet, the loneliness of Dickinson, even in happier times, is palpable. Despite near constant witty retorts, the character of Emily is clearly preoccupied with that loneliness and death, which is appropriate given the subjects of her published works. Her poetry, although not recognized in her lifetime, plays a major part in the film, and serves to frame the emotion of her struggles, through beautiful voice-over work from Cynthia Nixon.
Roots of Will: Importantly, the film also provides brief moments from Emily’s childhood. Her strength in dealing with a particularly difficult quandary in her religious upbringing is a powerful scene and its ramifications are felt until the closing credits. Her internal strength turned outward in response to an authority figure efficiently shows us Emily’s intelligence, wit, and strong will. It also provides a particularly wonderful dissolve from cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, which processes the age of Emily, her sister (Jennifer Ehle), and her father (Keith Carradine) more effectively than any expensive computer generated effect in recent memory. The way this sequence is structured also sets us purely in the time of the film due to the standard 1800’s style poses.
Role of a Lifetime: Portraying a character who is barraged with these heavy themes is difficult, to say the least. There is a certain morose quality to these situations, which could make connection with Emily impossible. However, Cynthia Nixon is up to this challenge, and then some. She is just as comfortable with loneliness and death as she is with the much-needed levity provided by her relationships with her sister and her sister-in-law (Jodhi May). With a lesser actress in the lead role, her enjoyment of these moments and her ringing laughter would feel forced. Instead, when Emily is happy, her face lightens and her eyes widen in such a way as to let the audience in. But indeed, Nixon’s face also contains layers of complexity, which never quite abate. Even at her happiest, her solitude and world weariness is hidden somewhere just behind her eyes. These two distinct relationships frame Emily not only as a character to care about, but also as a happy medium between two extremes. Her sister is clearly more conservative than Emily, and is socially acceptable in all of her life choices, whether it be the relationship with their father or how she handles romantic prospects. Her sister-in-law, on the other hand, is the face of sexual freedom and pointed jabs towards an impossibly difficult system of female oppression. Although Emily clearly enjoys her liberal nature and blunt honesty, particularly about men and marriage, she likely sees her as an anomaly, albeit an enjoyable one. The many scenes of Emily watching her sister-in-law leave the grounds hammers home her own loneliness and lack of physical and social mobility. These two characters serve to affix Emily as a mostly solid middle ground between the two extremes. She certainly has her moments of extremity later in the film, but her point of view is always understandable.
Even through difficulties, ranging from mild disagreements to character deaths, connection and familial affection are paramount. Terence Davies, who also penned the screenplay, never focuses too keenly on Emily’s wit, though it is readily apparent. Even in moments when she soundly defeats her sister’s traditional point of view, the film returns to the relationship. Emily is proud and defiant in the throes of her arguments, but always takes the time to come back to reality and be sure that her relationships are as healthy as possible. Simple moments, such as the two sisters embracing their mother in bed, or a kiss on the forehead to her permissive father, shows more connection than any scene of extensive dialogue could. This affection bonds these characters together regardless or tragedy or triumph.
Overall:. A Quiet Passion is a rare thing, a biopic which may affect viewers emotionally, yet is not bombastic and overplayed. Cynthia Nixon, in a surprise performance, inhabits Emily Dickinson completely and is supported wonderfully by precise direction and subtle writing from Terence Davies, as well as strong supporting performances. It is a challenging film that is well worth the effort.
Featured Image: Music Box Films