Director Terence Davies continues his love affair with the woman he regards as America’s greatest poet in A Quiet Passion.
Born into privilege in 1803, Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) spent most of her life on her parents’ estate in Armherst, Massachusetts. In her youth, Dickinson is shown as a fiercely intelligent young woman who exchanges forthright opinions on life and art. And, more particularly, on the place of women in a patriarchal society.
She becomes more and more reclusive as the years pass, gradually withdrawing from society, until her seclusion is all but complete. In her cloistered existence she is consumed by poetry, but recognition for her work is scant. Fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime.
Davies realises Dickinson’s interior world. He gives great weight to the role her family and their various bourgeois guests play in her life. Emily’s encounters with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), brother Austin (Duncan Duff), mother (Joanna Bacon) and father (Keith Carradine) provide the hinge around which the film is structured.
Emily Dickinson was first featured in Terence Davies’ work in his 2008 visual ode to Liverpool, Of Time and The City, which contained Davies reading Dickinson’s Poem 301. He regards her poetry as sublime and so began development of A Quiet Passion in 2012.
Cynthia Nixon is quite remarkable in a nuanced performance that’s totally believable. Her character transitions from personable to decidedly unsociable as her earlier good humour and wit vanishes.
A Quiet Passion is extremely slow moving, with a number of significant pauses between scenes. I readily admit that I frequently looked at my watch – not a good sign. As such and as a period drama, it will suit only selective tastes, with poetry readings interspersed with the unfolding storyline.
Grim is the only word I can think of to sum up the experience. Rated PG, A Quiet Passion scores a 6½ out of 10.
Director: Terence Davies
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Release Date: 22 June 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television