Cynthia Nixon enacts for us a profound but deeply disturbing portrait of poet Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a film written and directed by Terence Davies, who attempts to probe what life was like for this literary icon. The film captures the stifling 19th century atmosphere in which Dickinson as a woman had to defy convention to pursue her passion for expression. It also depicts the toll it took and gives us a sense of her artistry and the well from which it emanated.
Nixon’s superb performance provides an overview of Dickinson in this extremely intimate and well-thought-out drama that imagines what it must have been like for her within the context of her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Keith Carradine plays her austere father, to whose discipline she surrenders with respect.
Jennifer Ehle, ever distinguished, plays Emily’s sister Vinnie, and their relationship is a lively part of the drama. It is always extremely difficult to get into the mind of a creative artist, and this film makes the attempt by depicting Emily’s subtly rebellious spirit, both with respect to her writing and outlook on life, and also her judgmental personality, as when she becomes furious at an affair that her married brother Austin has. (He’s enacted by Duncan Duff.)
The beautifully shot drama proceeds chapter-like as we watch Emily become more and more withdrawn and wracked by illness. Her decline is extremely tragic, as shown here, leading to her death at the age of 55 in 1886.
Ultimately, “A Quiet Passion” is a fascinating mix. On the one hand, one can come away admiring Nixon for her superb acting. But in another respect, the film is a downer as we watch Dickinson’s descent into loneliness and death. A Music Box Films release. Reviewed April 14, 2017.