Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May
Director: Terence Davies
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Part of the issue with many biopics is their over-reliance on framing events in retrospect and then applying a modern prism for which to view historical figures. This is understandable and in some senses inevitable given that filmmaking, by design, encourages editorialization. However, in the case of A Quiet Passion, filmmaker Terence Davies and star Cynthia Nixon's sensibilities merge so fully that 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson emerges as a flawed and deeply complex woman forced by her society to retreat from reality. Therefore, the sense of historical specificity and extraordinary interpretation of Dickinson as an elusive presence given to both flights of fancy and crippling melancholy, makes A Quiet Passion that rare biopic which transcends the genre entirely.
Davies's picture could actually be viewed as a companion piece to last year's Whit Stillman-directed Jane Austin adaptation Love and Friendship, in that it's obsession with the cadence of language acts as a catalyst for getting at deeper human emotions. Whereas Stillman's film mostly played as a detached farce of social norms, Davies uses rapid-fire dialogue and heightened monologues as a means of exploring the ways in which morality, decorum, and ego can warp one's sense of self. As presented here, Emily is a proto-feminist continuously getting caught up in matters of the heart, soul, and practicality; often parsed out in arguments with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), obstinate aunt (Annette Badland), and stern father (Keith Carradine). There's also the alluring figure of her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a liberated woman spewing crackerjack quips to whom Emily is innately drawn. Like Vryling, Emily is self-possessed to the point of creating quite a stir among her small sphere of influence in Amherst, Massachusetts. Unlike her comrade, though, Emily uses her strident rules of everyday conversation as a way of imbuing her poetry with genuine feeling rather than simply as a witty deflection.
Emily's poetry, meanwhile, is all over A Quiet Passion, but not in a manner which treats it like a means of process or idealized reflection. Instead, Davies layers the prose through voice over narration and only occasionally shows her jotting down stanzas, as if to merely reveal that she preferred writing during the middle of the night and was notoriously self-conscious about the way the work was received. While superficially following a standard biopic formula, Davies never feels like he's simply going through a checklist of events. Instead, the film has a haunting quality; coming across like a chamber drama where all the characters are trapped inside circular arguments beginning with a specific point of contention before swerving into an abstract debate that, despite the rhythmic nature of the dialogue, maintains an aura of human brokenness. This beating heart can largely be attributed to Nixon's transformative performance; a real high-wire act which modulates between wry humor, defiant rage, deep sadness, and finally, physical and mental deterioration.
A Quiet Passion shows a complicated artist in all her humanness. Rather than elevating his subject to the status of social justice heroine or god-like poet, Davies gets at the essential element of why art is important and consequently, why someone like Emily Dickinson was such a major figure worthy of adoration. The film does this without devolving into worshipful sentimentality or exploiting Emily's internal misery. It simply shows someone desperate to connect, be loved, and understand her role in a society which seemingly disdained the fact that she existed, supreme gifts and all, in the first place.