A Quiet Passion

July 1, 2017
Emily Dickinson... how to have fun without leaving your room
Emily Dickinson... how to have fun without leaving your room

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

For Emily Dickinson (1830-86) there was a distinction in being Nobody as opposed to Somebody. Now considered one of the greatest American poets, Dickinson spent almost her entire life living in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, and would die prematurely from what was then called Bright’s Disease. Over the last 20 years of her life she barely left the house, preferring to communicate with visitors from the other side of a door.

Dickinson wrote more than 1,800 poems but less than a dozen were published during her lifetime, and then in bowdlerised versions, as editors felt the need to “correct” her syntax and punctuation. It would take until 1955 for a complete and accurate edition of her collected poems to appear in print.

This may not sound like promising material for a bio pic but it’s a natural fit for a director such as Terence Davies. With his first feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), made at the age of 43, Davies revealed the melancholy, poetic sensibility that has characterised all his films. There’s a sadness and intensity in his work that would be depressing if he wasn’t continually groping for fleeting moments of happiness, indeed ecstasy. He is a tragedian with a doggedly optimistic streak.

Davies is the perfect choice to portray a life that was one long rhapsody of repression, yet productive of some of the most original and startling poetry in the English language. A Quiet Passion proves that the inner life can be a genuinely dramatic subject. It succeeds by virtue of an outstanding performance by Cynthia Nixon in the lead role; through a camera that seems to caresse interiors and objects; and because of a script that’s breathtaking in its play of wit and throwaway profundities.

The movie begins with a remarkable scene in which the young Emily (played by Emma Bell), sets herself apart from the other girls at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by refusing to accept the brand of evangelical submission being demanded by the headmistress. Her independent, intellectually rigorous personality is already on display. She is taking counsel from her own conscience, not from authority, refusing to believe that God will think less of her if she declines to conform to the school’s spiritual blackmail.

Back in Amherst Emily’s swears she can envisage no other life than the one she shares with her family. She is especially close to her sister, Lavinia – or “Vinnie” (Jennifer Ehle), and her brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), who seems to be the only Dickinson with a Scottish accent. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) is as distant as a ghost, while her father, Edward (Keith Carradine) acts the stern patriarch but is willing to indulge his “sophisticated” children.

Edward sets the tone for a household that observes the strictest Christian morality but also values talent and intelligence. There is much conversation about the soul, and about whether sensual pleasures such as music are compatible with a virtuous life.

As a complement to this incessant philosophising Davies has taken a minor character in the lives of the Dickinson family and given her a starring role. Catherine Bailey is marvellous as Vryling Buffam, a neighbour who flaunts all the social niceties, and speaks with the relentless display of wit one finds in Oscar Wilde’s writings. In The Picture of Dorian Gray this verbal sparring soon becomes tiresome, but in the puritanical community of Amherst it’s a pure delight. Who would have thought that a movie about a death-haunted poet who barely leaves the house could be so funny?

Davies gets through the trauma of the Civil War in a series of inserts, showing scenes of the major battlefields and the death tolls. Nothing is allowed to distract from the Emily’s hermetic existence, and the poetry she writes in the early hours of the morning before the rest of the family wakes. We hear Nixon’s voice reciting these poems sporadically throughout the film but there is never a moment when they take centre stage.

After 12 years of Sex in the City one can imagine with what relish Nixon embraced the chance to play a serious role. As Emily she is a severe, demanding personality that sets high standards for herself and those around her, but is also full of verve and mischief. As such she captures the tone of so many of Dickinson’s poems, which are sharp and sensual, packed with unorthodox thoughts, but also preoccupied with spiritual matters.

At the end, Davies cannot resist the temptation of quoting the famous verse:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me
-

In their mixture of black irony and courtesy these lines reveal the paradoxical personality of a woman who shunned the world, but dreamt of immortality; who mixed pride with self-abasement; who longed for love, but found it impossible to leave the sanctuary of the family home. It’s no small feat to bring such a character to life on the screen, and to offer us a vision of a world in which every aspect of life, both great and small, is judged from the standpoint of eternity.

A Quiet Passion
Written & directed by Terence Davies
Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Joanna Bacon, Jodhi May, Emma Bell, Annette Badland, Eric Loren
UK/Belgium, rated PG, 125 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 July, 2017