There's something uniquely sorrowful about any great artist who doesn't find recognition during her lifetime. Then there's Emily Dickinson, who ranks among the greatest American poets but lived to see only 10 of her approximately 1,800 poems find their way to print — and those were published anonymously, mostly in small regional newspapers.
The familiar story of an artist sacrificing everything for her work probably reaches its ultimate expression in Dickinson. She was brought up in church but was deeply troubled by its teachings. She never married or accepted the attention of suitors, and during her lifetime (1830-1886), women enjoyed few of the freedoms taken for granted by men. She was devoted to her family and her writing, both of which could be found at the Amherst, Massachusetts family home she scarcely left during the second half of her life.
Given these circumstances, one could be forgiven for recoiling at the thought of a Dickinson biopic. The magic and mystery of Dickinson's writings are hard to deny, but the details of her life hardly seem the stuff of great cinema.
Known for semi-autobiographical, arthouse classics like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, British writer-director Terence Davies courageously accepts the challenge of a Dickinson biopic with A Quiet Passion. The 71-year-old Davies has told interviewers he read four Dickinson biographies before writing a screenplay based on the parts that stuck with him. That is hardly a recipe for historical accuracy, but it gave Davies just what he needed to craft a deeply personal and highly imaginative vision of Dickinson's life and art.
When we first meet Davies' Dickinson, she's a rebellious teenager studying at a religious boarding school, an experience she describes later in the film as a mix of "bullying and coercion." Davies imagines Dickinson's close-knit family (which includes two siblings and a pair of deeply understanding parents) as a source of intellectual curiosity and unceasing verbal wit — the dialogue, especially early on, is sharp enough to strain believability, but it's highly entertaining and sets the stage for what follows.
The story soon jumps ahead in Dickinson's life through a remarkable sequence in which the face of each family member ages and morphs while sitting for a photographic portrait, finally arriving at a new group of older actors to play the adult versions of Dickinson and her siblings. It's a stunning example of the creativity Davies summons to tell his housebound story in vibrant cinematic style. In other scenes, the camera slowly tracks across a silent domestic tableau to reveal the inner lives and emotional states of the various family members, each further illuminated by the others. It is a quietly dazzling technique.
As the adult Dickinson, Cynthia Nixon (best known as Miranda from HBO's Sex and the City) conjures all her character's private desperation. Nixon's perceptive readings of Dickinson's poetry, presented throughout in voiceover narration, are central to the film's creative success. Even with so many penetrating words at her disposal, Nixon is at her expressive best in scenes where she has to communicate nonverbally. She deserves to be remembered when award season arrives.
A Quiet Passion's final act is no romp in the park as death and disease overtake the otherwise life-affirming story of Dickinson and her family. But sharing a bit of Dickinson's suffering seems a small price to pay for all the film's insights, or for its sense of justice in finally giving the artist her due.