“I wish I could feel as others do, but it is not possible,” says a teenage Emily Dickinson. She’s standing alone in front of the headmistress of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in the opening scene of Terence Davis’ haunting A Quiet Passion. The rest of her classmates have, at the headmistress’ request, divided into two camps: Those ready to be good Christians and be saved by God, and those who hope to be saved. Only Dickinson (Emma Bell) rejects the orthodoxy of both options, forging an uncertain path at the risk of eternal damnation.
Her proclamation of feeling and its absence is a remarkably clear-eyed observation for a young girl. With it, Davies establishes his character’s uncanny lucidity toward herself and the world around her as well as her lifelong struggle with depression. It’s at the heart of the film’s tragic irony — that someone whose words expressed such profound inquiries into the human condition experienced so little of it in practice.
Dickinson’s biography is well-established, but it takes an unflinching filmmaker like Davies to dramatize its most difficult revelations. He rightfully detests sentiment and hagiography, and it’s fair to say he doesn’t take a point of view about his subject or her legacy. Rather, this challenging biopic serves as a compendium of weighty ideas carried, like a terrible burden, in the spectral form of his tormented protagonist.
Yet it’s also, paradoxically, the blithest of Davies’ films. For much of its effervescent first hour, as this preternaturally insightful girl flowers into Cynthia Nixon’s naturally brilliant and caustic woman, A Quiet Passion is a voluminous comedy of manners, closer to Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship than anything in Davies’ economical canon. Though disappointing to her puritanical father (an excellent Keith Carradine, embodying one of the least-abusive patriarchs in the Davies oeuvre), Dickinson takes a perverse joy in her impiety.
She shares enlightened and amusing dialogues with her liberated friend Vryling Wilder Buffam (Catherine Bailey). They are a pair of rebels one step ahead of the boys around them, answering Emily’s pointed question — are women “destined only for decorousness?” — with a decided no.
But Dickinson also fixates — in conversation, reflection and verse — on death and the hereafter, ruminations that jolt to the forefront at the outbreak of the Civil War. Just as she seems to age almost imperceptibly over time, so too does her rapier wit slowly curdle into abject cruelty toward those who don’t meet her impossible moral standards.
The most painful aspect of A Quiet Passion may be bearing witness to Dickinson’s inexorable slide from clever rogue to morose spinster, weakening physically and hardening emotionally. She sequesters herself in bedrooms, watching friends and family from doorways, excluded from the pleasures and comforts enjoyed so effortlessly by others. This deterioration is all the more acute thanks to Davies’ rejection of establishing shots and narrative exposition, leaving us as rudderless as his heroine.
It doesn’t help that Dickinson famously sold few poems during her lifetime, most of which were “corrected” by hack editors, her extraordinary corpus printed decades after her death. At one point, Dickinson demeans the prospect of posthumous recognition. “Posterity is as comfortless as God,” she says, one of the script’s countless examples of profound pith. Davies gifts us with the work anyway, punctuating his screenplay with voiceover recitations of Dickinson’s poetry on life, death, religion, love and war, the intermittent readings serving as a brilliant narrative through-line.
It should go without saying at this point that Davies’ film is visually ravishing. Florian Hoffmeister’s luminous cinematography turns lantern-lit interiors into backdrops for classical paintings, and every camera movement is laden with meaning.
It’s not always the case that Davies’ storytelling matches his bravura technique, but this time, content arguably eclipses form. The story’s implications are excruciating and heartbreaking. It posits that Emily Dickinson was a figure of stasis among the inevitable changes of time, remaining as an immobile as a sculpture while loved ones died, or moved, or married into lives of content domesticity. She was, as always, standing alone.
A QUIET PASSION. Director: Terence Davies; Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey; Distributor: Music Box; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday at AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, Regal Shadowood in Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, The Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Cinemax Brickell City in Miami, O Cinema and Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, and AMC Sunset Place in South Miami