Film

The Blessing and Curse of Emily Dickinson’s Homebound World

Cynthia Nixon plays the older Dickinson, portraying her as multitudinous, assertive, rebellious, principled, shrill, demure, sensitive, coy, and vain.

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion (all images © A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films) 

With his newest effort, Terence Davies comes full circle — sort of. The acclaimed British director who began by making rigorously formal, deeply felt autobiographical films (The Terence Davies Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives, Of Time and the City), followed by literary adaptations (The Neon Bible, The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song) in his mid-to-late career, has finally come back to filming a life — not his own, but that of arguably the U.S.’s greatest poet: Emily Dickinson. Yet to consider A Quiet Passion (2016) as simply a biopic is to reduce its virtues. The movie does not fetishize the creative process, of seeing Dickinson (played first by Emma Bell, and later by Cynthia Nixon) compose her poetry. There are simply brief shots in which she is in her room writing at her desk. Moreover, Davies does not attempt to answer why she became a recluse, confining herself to her family’s estate, affectionately known as the Homestead. Instead, he shows her limited world — which is both a blessing and a curse — made up of sturdy relationships with friends and family.

A Quiet Passion begins with a young Dickinson not in the Homestead, but in a classroom at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. In frontal shots reminiscent of the dry-heat spirituality of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a teacher instructs a group of students: Move to the right if you’re Christian and saved. A cluster of girls move to the right. Move to the left if you hope to be saved. More girls move to the left. The only person remaining in the center is Emily. She refuses to decide. How can one repent if one is unsure of one’s feelings? Suffering from what she calls an “acute case of evangelism,” Emily returns home, where she’ll remain for the rest of the film. “Oh life! Oh home, how wonderful you are!” she bursts out.

Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon and Keith Carradine in A Quiet Passion

At the Homestead, A Quiet Passion is, at first, airy as Emily lives her daily life, interacting with friends and her family, which consists of her brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright for the younger version; Duncan Duff when older), her sister Livinia (Rose Williams followed by Jennifer Ehle), or Vinnie for short, her adoring father (Keith Carradine), and her mentally ill mother (Joanna Bacon). Davies shoots Emily engaged in conversations — A Quiet Passion is full of them — using shot-reverse-shot volleys that enhance the curt rhythm of the witty exchanges. Dickinson’s poems, read in voiceover by Nixon and recited at intervals throughout the film, overlay and relate to the action unfolding onscreen. Davies also provides an inventive ellipsis: As the Dickinson family have their daguerreotype portraits taken, the camera slowly pushes forward toward them, aging with modestly deployed digital effects.

Cynthia Nixon now plays the older, birdlike Dickinson, portraying her as multitudinous, assertive, rebellious, principled, shrill, demure, sensitive, coy, and vain. As time passes, as loved ones die and friends leave Amherst, the mood shifts — much like the mood swings associated with the home in Davies’s 2015 film Sunset Song — becoming increasingly despairing and forlorn. Emily, more mercurial, knowing in her cultivated spinster image, and now wearing exclusively white, has become the very thing she dreads: embittered. “Why has the world become so ugly?” she asks Vinnie, in tears.

Duncan Duff, Jennifer Ehle, Cynthia Nixon, Miles Richardson, Keith Carradine, and Joanna Bacon in A Quiet Passion

Throughout Emily’s life, death has never been far from her thoughts. Her best-known poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” makes an appearance. She discusses the matter with an aunt and later with Reverend Wadsworth, a preacher she fancies who is, alas, married. When a rare unmarried man calls on her, not only does Emily play hard to get, she insults the bachelor outright. Licking his wounds, the gentleman turns to the mellow Vinnie, who is often responsible for damage-control after her sister’s actions. After this verbal jousting, there is an interlude that seems out of time: a fantastical sequence and one of Davies’ best. As Sarah Leonard’s ethereal soprano sings, “Since First I Saw Your Face,” on the soundtrack, Emily waits at her desk in her room as the camera moves in in slow-motion. In shadows, the outline of a man races up the stairs toward her. The sequence plays like a visualization of her wild imagination.

In an article for The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson notes that, in the 1850 national census, Dickinson self-consciously wrote “keeping house” as her vocation. A Quiet Passion captures the full magnitude of such a “profession.” Emily remains the same as the space remains the same. She is associated with the Homestead, beholden to her values, principles, and integrity. She watches those around her move on as her life remains at a standstill, frozen in the place where she was born and where she will die.

A Quiet Passion opens April 14 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema (1886 Broadway) and Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street).

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