Cynthia Nixon's stellar performance provides the beating heart behind the occasionally staid exterior of "A Quiet Passion," British writer-director Terence Davies' lovingly intimate reflection on the life of poet Emily Dickinson.
Beginning with the poet as a teenager (played by Emma Bell) during her brief time attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary -- where her skepticism for organized religion doesn't go over too well -- Davies takes us through the years of Dickinson's quiet life, leading to the anguished, illness-prone years before her death at age 55. Over that time the poet led a cloistered, almost reclusive life, rarely leaving the grounds of her family's home. As a result (and as its title might suggest), "A Quiet Passion" lacks the highs and lows we expect from a traditional biopic; the filmmaker keeps things more even-keeled, valuing the small moments over major incident.
Emily has high standards (for herself as well as others), and she's incapable of biting her tongue, a trait that's something of a curse for a woman living in mid-19th century Massachusetts. She's prone to use her wit as a weapon, preventing people from getting too close, although she does have a few close relationships, most notably with her sharp-tongued friend Vryling Buffam (a delightful Catherine Bailey) and with her long-suffering and incredibly patient sister, Vinnie (played by the ever-wonderful Jennifer Ehle). Emily accepts her solitary life, though she doesn't always enjoy it, and the push and pull of her instincts for rebellion versus the expectations of society are the conflict at the heart of the poet.
Defying the time's conventional wisdom that the arts were no place for a woman, Emily writes furiously, even as her work is dismissed or outright ignored. "Poems are my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all," Emily offers by way of explanation to one befuddled relative who can't wrap their head around why she bothers. Little of Emily's work was published during her lifetime, and the eventual fame as one of the great poets came only posthumously.
The film can feel somewhat mannered, and the rhythms of Davies' heightened, theatrical dialogue takes some time to settle into. But once you do, there's a wealth of emotion underneath. I should note that the film is frequently funny, and it's quite beautiful, thanks to cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister's painterly photography.
Through it all, Nixon is brilliant, capturing Dickinson's volatile spirit. Whether in banter-filled drawing room conversations or reciting passages of the writer's poetry in voiceover, she conveys Dickinson's steely resolve and humor as well as her intense vulnerability. With her performance at its center, "A Quiet Passion" doesn't need a sweeping narrative to feel epic in scope: the depth of its emotion is just as captivating.