Writing about the films of Terence Davies, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I prefer his autobiographical tone poems (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes; Of Time and the City) to his literary dramas (The House of Mirth; The Deep Blue Sea; Sunset Song), the latter of which often send up sinking under their own weight. Davies’ latest, a portrait of Emily Dickinson titled A Quiet Passion, is in the tradition of the latter category, and like those other period dramas it’s anchored by a female performance of formidable strength. Though hardly anyone else would have likely thought of her, Cynthia Nixon turns out to be exactly the right choice to play the Belle of Amherst: she has the quiet steeliness of will, the sly humor, and the hauntedness familiar to anyone who knows her poems. The vibrancy of the cast, which also includes Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine, is one of the things that keeps A Quiet Passion from going the way of so many other biopics…and some other Davies films.
A Quiet Passion opens in the 1848, with the teenage Dickinson leaving school at Mount Holyoke in order to return to her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, partly out of homesickness but also out of a refusal to kowtow to the school’s programmatic Christian dogma. (The entire Dickinson family, we soon see, practiced various degrees of religious non-conformity.) Emily would go on to live out the remainder of her life in that yellow house, keeping kin with her parents, siblings, and neighbors, and writing some two thousand poems before her death in 1886. Sensitively interpreted by Nixon and Davies (who wrote the screenplay), the Dickinson of A Quiet Passion is a mass of contradictions: a woman of stern convictions and persistent doubts, fanciful and grave, sometimes gracious, sometimes rude. An eccentric by any standard, she is also shown to be part of a tight-knit community of nineteenth-century New Englanders whose views on religion, race, and women’s rights were on the cutting edge of convention. (Dickinson’s disregard for the conventional extended to her poems, studded as they are with queer turns of phrase and slashed with dashes, which baffled her publishers.)
Much to its credit, and in spite of its having been made by an Englishman, the film channels something of the bracing New England flavor that one gets from Dickinson’s poetry—its spiritedness, its plain sort of beauty, and its bite. A Quiet Passion is also (perhaps surprisingly) sunny and funny. Jennifer Ehle, in particular, brings tremendous warmth and appeal to her role as Emily’s sister Lavinia (“Vinny”), and Catherine Bailey, playing a coquettish neighbor, is so precocious and sassy that at times the film seems to have wandered into Jane Austen territory. Nixon, of course, remains best known for her role as the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Miranda on Sex and the City, and there’s something of that show’s bitchy, snarky humor in the way that she and Ehle exchange sidelong glances at each other from opposite sides of a tea table. Davies, who gave a Q&A after a screening of the film at the Harvard Film Archive last week, cited Oscar Wilde and Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce as inspirations for the archness of the film’s dialogue. At its liveliest moments, A Quiet Passion also draws on the urbanity of Davies’ own persona. He also mentioned identifying strongly with Dickinson’s deep attachment to her family and her home, to which he compared his own nostalgia for the world of his childhood in 1950s Liverpool, so beautifully evoked in his early works. Perhaps A Quiet Passion is closer to Davies’ autobiographical films than it would seem.