“A Quiet Passion,” Terence Davies’ masterful new movie, plays out in the sunny gardens and lamp-lighted drawing rooms of 19th-century Amherst, Mass., where Emily Dickinson spent most of her 55 years patiently making her monumental contribution to American literature.
At first glance, the film, with its lovingly appointed interiors and its excerpts of poetry on the soundtrack, might strike you as a dull and dutiful enshrinement of Dickinson’s brilliance, another ordinary film about an extraordinary artist. But Davies, one of the leading lights of contemporary British cinema, is temperamentally incapable of doing anything ordinary, and he has little interest in advancing the reductive narrative of a troubled, reclusive genius.
His eye for lighting, color and movement — the way his camera prefers to inhabit a room, rather than simply follow the action — would distinguish this picture alone, though his chief inspiration turns out to be verbal as well as visual. In contrast with the solo approach taken by William Luce’s 1976 play, “The Belle of Amherst,” Davies’ screenplay anchors Dickinson’s gift within a well-populated social context that, for all its rules and constraints, feels wildly alive with the possibilities of language.
Emily, played with steely wit, tremulous vulnerability and astonishing openness by Cynthia Nixon, speaks in a declarative, formal register, as do her family members, friends and acquaintances. The stately rhythms of the dialogue — drawn out by the particulars of Davies’ blocking, framing and editing — become a kind of music. The effect is bewildering at first, then absorbing, then transfixing. Its purpose, in line with the loftiest ideals of poetry itself, is to clear the mind and stir the soul.
If that sounds forbiddingly austere, rest assured that Davies also wants to make you laugh. The first half of “A Quiet Passion,” in particular, is a riotous assemblage of drawing-room banter to rival Whit Stillman’s recent adaptation of the Jane Austen comedy “Love & Friendship,” though the line readings here are more deliberate than effervescent, and even throwaway witticisms prove intimately revealing of character, milieu and circumstance.
The film opens in 1848, with a young Emily (played by Emma Bell) being expelled from Mount Holyoke College, where her refusal to submit herself to God in the expected manner has earned her the label of “no-hoper.” The relative good humor with which her Protestant family greets this news is telling, as is a terrifically funny later scene in which Emily, her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) and her siblings spar with a morally upright aunt (a delightful Annette Badland).
“Docility is too much like slavery,” Emily’s father says, an abolitionist sentiment that neatly distills the atmosphere of religious devotion and intellectual freedom that was allowed to flourish in the Dickinson household. This arrangement is not, of course, without its tensions and contradictions, and Emily’s spirit proves far more idiosyncratic, and far more difficult to tame, than those of her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff).
“I will not be forced to piety!” Emily rails against her father when he attempts to curb her more vocal expressions of religious independence. But their relationship, though often tempestuous, is also one of affection and nuanced understanding. Emily asks her father’s permission to write her poetry in the wee hours of the morning, and he consents — a favor that a husband, she ruefully acknowledges, would never have granted.
It’s not the only instance when Emily will express her personal ambivalence toward marriage. She disdains the way it puts a permanent end to most friendships, like the one she enjoys with Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), whose wonderfully tart tongue and shunning of conventional morality seem to have influenced Dickinson’s attitudes, if not her behavior. At home, Emily welcomes Austin’s new wife, Susan (Jodhi May), with honest sisterly affection, and later lashes out at her brother when he has an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellens).
For her part, Emily seems to console herself with the knowledge that solitude would be far preferable to a poor match. At other times, she bemoans her physical plainness and the spinsterhood for which she seems destined. She develops feelings for the married Rev. Charles Wadsworth (Eric Loren), who praises and encourages her literary gifts, though his abrupt departure for a parish in San Francisco contributes to a particularly intense, anguished outburst of creativity: “We outgrow love like other things / And put it in the drawer, / Till it an antique fashion shows / Like costumes grandsires wore.”
It’s one in a series of losses that initiates Dickinson’s slow, steady march toward isolation, illness and death. But even as the tonal register constricts, the rooms darken and the story edges almost imperceptibly toward tragedy, “A Quiet Passion” never quite loses its grounding in humor, in the push-pull of voices in vibrant, angry opposition.
A persistent suitor for Emily’s affections is dressed down in spectacular fashion. An overly aggressive editor is similarly taken to task, but manages to exact a cruel revenge. Through it all, Vinnie, whom Ehle invests with immense warmth, remains Emily’s closest and sweetest companion; you might be reminded of how marvelously Ehle once played Lizzie Bennet, an association that enriches rather than distracts from the dynamic here.
“A Quiet Passion” beautifully marries two strains in Davies’ earlier work. His semi-autobiographical masterworks, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1989) and “The Long Day Closes” (1993), captured the visual and emotional texture of domestic life, while his later literary adaptations — most notably his magnificent 2000 film of “The House of Mirth” — have revealed him to be an unusually sharp, sensitive portraitist of women, particularly those confined by the unforgiving social mores of an earlier era.
There is something of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in Davies’ conception of Emily Dickinson as a woman tragically ahead of her moment, and it is through Nixon’s brilliant performance that “A Quiet Passion” illuminates, complicates and ultimately transcends the mystery of its subject’s confinement. The film’s pursuit of a higher form of artistic truth merges with Dickinson’s own.
‘A Quiet Passion’
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, Los Angeles