‘A Quiet Passion’ Is as Enjoyably Eccentric as Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

What could’ve been a stuffy biopic turns into a fittingly odd ode to its unconventional subject.

A biopic of Emily Dickinson sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would be if it unfolded along conventional lines. But what if it were as unconventional as Dickinson’s poetry? I don’t mean a movie that is la-di-dah “poetic,” with out-of-focus shots of blossoms falling as classical music plays. What if the cinematic approach to the poet’s life could approximate her eccentric punctuation—full of dashes where commas usually roam—her abrupt shifts in focus, and her piercing gaze at eternity? If you could do that you’d have A Quiet Passion, an appropriately odd film from the British director Terence Davies.

Davies first came to wide attention with his mournful Liverpool elegies Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). Those films already show him working in a peculiar style, less intent on storytelling than in conjuring moods and places—with a strong feeling for the courage of people who go about the business of getting through the day. Still, a film about Dickinson is a chancy endeavor. Her poetry is one thing, but Dickinson’s life was marked by illnesses and reclusiveness. And forget about the usual biopic rise to fame; locked in her Amherst obscurity, Dickinson had only a handful of poems published in her lifetime.

We first encounter the poet as a young woman (played by Emma Bell), steadfastly resisting religious indoctrination while briefly enrolled at college. Her household is fully pious, but her wealthy father (Keith Carradine) is too fond of his unusual daughter to force her to attend Sunday service. An elegant segue takes us a few years into the future, where we settle into rounds of domestic duties and lively visitors. There’s also a hint of literary ambition, and as the film goes on, we infer that Dickinson’s inability to have her work appreciated is connected to the pall that settles over her youthful gaiety.

For a movie that includes a lot of chatter about eternity, A Quiet Passion has a strange feeling for time. We’re given few indicators—except the passing of the Civil War—about how long any of this is taking. And most intriguingly, when we come upon Emily as an adult, she is played by Cynthia Nixon, who is clearly older than the character at that point. I think this is deliberate on Davies’ part, bending realism so that Dickinson exists in a timeless way. Nixon, though, skillfully alters her performance as the years go by: at first she’s alight with wit and curiosity, as though she’s going to burn through her 19th-century corsets; later, she’s wearied by duties and expectations. The film leaves no question that Dickinson’s setbacks, while certainly tied up in her distinctive personality, are also very much about being a woman in a man’s world.

Nixon is a renowned stage actress who is famous because of her role in Sex and the City, a bizarre career joke. (And if you were wondering how to get from Sarah Jessica Parker to Emily Dickinson with one degree of separation, you see how easy it is.) In this film Nixon is a giant, all the more so for playing a role with built-in constraints. As Emily’s sister Vinnie, Jennifer Ehle is superb, and Duncan Duff and Jodhi May are just right as Emily’s brother and sister-in-law. But here we get into one of the film’s weirdnesses. These performances, and the dialogue that comes out of them, are skewed so that they land somewhere between realism and theatricality. Sometimes characters pose as though waiting for the still camera to click; other times the lighting reminds us of a painting.

Even if that style produces uneven results, the overall effect is powerful. The movie’s title sounds worthy of a paperback from the gift shop at the airport, but in this case it’s earned. For as much as the English house and the proper costumes suggest a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre sort of experience, a wild and fiery spirit blazes beneath the exterior. To prove the rightness of that approach, simply read the poems. A Quiet Passion, Rated PG-13. Seven Gables Theater. Opens Fri., May 5. film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

‘Roma’ projects to be the big winner at the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday. Photo by Carlos Somonte
And The Winner Is: 2019 Oscars Preditions

Who will take home the awards on cinema’s biggest night?

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Seattle’s current weather… I mean, ‘Arctic.’ Photo by Helen Sloan/Bleecker Street
Mads Mikkelsen Delivers a Tour de Force in ‘Arctic’

The near-silent performance makes this survival film transcend the genre.

The upbeat everyman Emmet remains cheerful even in post-apocalyptic settings. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Everything’s Still Awesome

‘The Lego Movie 2’ builds on the success of the original with more humorous pop culture-drenched adventure.

In a fairer world, little film like ‘The Rider’ would have a chance at Oscars gold. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Who We Would’ve Nominated For 2019 Academy Awards

Narrow defintions of “Oscar worthy films” and Hollywood politics shut out some of the year’s best. Let’s change that.

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.