Cynthia Nixon’s impressive inhabiting of the spirit of Emily Dickinson battles against a stilted and unwieldy script in A Quiet Passion.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes” runs the first line of Emily Dickinson’s poem #372. A Quiet Passion, the biopic of perhaps the greatest ever American poet, explores Dickinson’s pain with no small degree of cinematic formality. With theatrical flourish it fills in the details of an infamously reclusive life, but what more can it tell us that her poems don’t already?
Films about writers are particularly difficult. This is partly because the act of writing is not especially engaging to watch, unlike that of, say, playing music or even painting. Most films that feature writers, like Adaptation or – God help us – Shakespeare in Love are not so much about writers as they are films which happen to have a writer as the protagonist. It also has much to do with the fact that writers tend to lead fairly dull lives. Unless it’s Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson most writers write their adventures rather than live them.
And Dickinson was a star at reclusiveness. Rarely leaving her family home (or even her bedroom) in Amherst, Massachusetts throughout her life, there was little romance and even less adventure. A Quiet Passion handles this dearth of biographical interest in the only way it really can, and in much the same way as Dickinson did in her poetry: blowing the interior life up to canvas size for examination, every rivulet of desire and depression becoming a torrent.
The story is not so much that of Dickinson herself as it is of her reaction to the stories which happen around her. This particularly relates to the marriages of friends and relatives, which she describes as being like ‘a death’ for the way it takes them out of her life.
This incredible self-centeredness could quickly become tiresome, but Cynthia Nixon pirouettes skilfully between aloof coldness and an almost desperate tenderness which prevents Dickinson becoming an object of either contempt or pity. In this she is well supported by Jennifer Ehle as sister Vinnie, whose period drama chops have been well honed since the 1995 BBC miniseries of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and here looks more at home in a bustle than anyone else on screen.
In this impressive performance however, Nixon (and all the characters) need to wrestle with rather than ride a script which on too many occasions comes across as overly laboured and mannered. It sounds like they drew much of the dialogue from Dickinson’s extensive array of correspondence with various people, but that has its benefits and its drawbacks. While it clearly establishes Dickinson’s character and carries the verisimilitude onto the screen, people do obviously speak very differently in real life than they do in letters. Hardly a stroll in the garden or a dinner goes by without grand declarations on womanhood, the institution of marriage, or the nature of faith.
All these were a vital part of Dickinson’s intellectual life, of course, but by restricting much of the conversation to these debate-hall topics it obstructs our view of the woman herself. The result is that when the focus changes from the social to the emotional, when the extent of Dickinson’s depression and self-loathing begins to be revealed, it has much less of the impact it should, simply because this is not a woman we know or understand.
A Quiet Passion is strongest when other figures are increasingly cropped out and there’s a tighter focus on Dickinson herself. The camera constantly running slow pans around the rooms of the house, as if every detail of every panel and door knob is as vital as the words and expressions of the characters themselves. This intense focus on the interior is mirrored by Nixon’s portrayal of a woman stretched taut by her confrontation with herself.
But Emily Dickinson’s poetry was lyrical, transcendent; the numerous recitals of her verses which we enjoy throughout the film are, naturally, the high points. There would be many ways for a script to work with this. Terence Davies’ choice to attempt to match words and wits with the woman herself seems like the worst possible approach, and the stiffness of so many scenes only serves to remind us of the eloquence and elegance which we’re missing out on. 3/5
Please note, this review was originally published last October as part of our London Film Festival coverage.