Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic, “A Quiet Passion,” burns with an erratic intensity, like a flickering candle flame. At once impassioned and stoic, the film doesn’t so much depict the events of Dickinson’s life as it sketches the major themes of it — gender, rebellion, religion, family. As portrayed by Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon, Dickinson is headstrong, impudent and simply incapable of biting her tongue. It’s a remarkable portrait of the artist in terms of performance, but the surrounding film is uneven, more academically analytical than emotionally immersive.
Davies, who wrote and directed “A Quiet Passion,” chooses key, if disjointed, moments from Dickinson’s life to hang the narrative around. We start with her dismissal from a woman’s college for her religious rebellion, a refusal to conform to the school’s idea of a relationship with God, choosing instead to express her own beliefs and values. Though Dickinson is often sharply reprimanded for being “irreligious,” she has her own personal relationship with God. She’s far from a nonbeliever — in fact, her deeply felt and personally interrogated beliefs are what inspire her willingness to talk back to pastors and clergymen.
Davies uses significant vignettes and interactions to illustrate Dickinson’s singular values and worldview about romance, relationships, poetry and gender — being female is akin to “slavery” she snaps at her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) in her inimitably unfiltered way. She’s not immune to the silly pleasures of courtship, which she observes from the sidelines, tittering with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). But her rosy enjoyment of such frivolity slowly turns brittle, cracks and crumbles over time. Her friend, the equally witty and rebellious Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), eventually gives in to social pressures and marries, leaving Emily alone on her spinster island, and she shuts herself away, writing her poems.
There’s an odd sense of artifice to “A Quiet Passion” that keeps the viewer at an arm’s length. We can never quite dive into this world and become swept away in the period costumes and rituals when the line readings are delivered so theatrically, the tableaux so deliberately staged. The filmmaking demonstrates a considerable amount of craftsmanship in production design, cinematography, writing and performance, but it is as stiff and stilted as a starched collar, as constraining as a tight-laced corset. Despite beauty in composition, it never softens to let you in, so it feels like observing from the sidelines, considering the events intellectually but never emotionally.
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There’s a studious sense of unease throughout “A Quiet Passion,” as Davies lingers on the uncomfortable moments of Dickinson’s life — horrific convulsions from a brutal kidney disease, or ugly spats with her parents and siblings. Nixon is nothing if not fully committed to inhabiting the role of this extraordinary and tormented woman, but there’s no easiness to her performance and the filmmaking around her. Both are forced and laborious, which makes Ehle’s wonderfully naturalistic performance as Vinnie stand out, throwing everyone else’s stiffness into stark relief. Ultimately, breaking through the hard outer shell of artifice that encases “A Quiet Passion” ends up quite a chore, and a bore to boot.
A Quiet Passion
☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Duncan Duff.
Director: Terence Davies.
Running time: 2:05.
Rated: PG-13, for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material.