A Quiet Passion is as much a biopic about time as it is about its central figure, the American poet Emily Dickinson. Beginning in the moment Dickinson bucks against the ecclesial structure that offers her submission on the one hand or, also, submission on the other and following her through life to her own death, the film chronicles the effects of time on her and her family – physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.
It would be false to say that Dickinson abhors easy answers. The choices her friends and family members make to fit into society in accepted ways are not easy choices. They marry not for love but for security and resign themselves to loveless lives. They assent to theological dictums because they believe them to be true though they are terrible, not because they necessarily bring them peace. They socialize because doing so knits the community together, not because they particularly enjoy it. These are difficult choices, but they are also the societally acceptable ones. Dickinson sees through the either/or binaries and recognizes in them a tacit acceptance of death. She will not acquiesce. She would rather burn against death and feel fully the fury of the burning than pretend death does not burn. She may, in her later years, after death and tradition have begun to claim all those she loves, ensconce herself in her room and venture out only in her poetry, but it’s more a burrowing into grief than it is an acceptance of it. Dickinson feels and fumes and finds ways to voice her quiet fury.
Cynthia Nixon is excellent as Dickinson. She plays her prickly, like someone who is annoyed with the general thoughtlessness of the world. She’s always the smartest person in the room, and she’s hungry to ply her wit. She tests all, and when she finds another person capable of scaling the high slopes of intelligence with her, she loves them fully. She is also sensitive. She longs, and Nixon wears Dickinson’s longing like a gaunt mask. She’s perpetually puckered, because she thirsts for connection to another person of similar integrity who refuses to accept the false surface of the world and demands the underlying truth instead. Dickinson is resolutely soft; Nixon encases her in a shiny, chocolate shell.
Writer/director Terrence Davies includes the Wiki-facts of Dickinson’s life – she leaves seminary, lives at home, loses her parents, loves her sister, retreats to her bedroom, is ill, rejects paramours, writes and remains unknown in her time, dies. But he gives special attention to the ways time affects her and her family, and he visualizes this in a few bravura sequences that show the Dickinson family aging as a photographer tries to capture them, ellipse certain events in favor of featuring their effects, and realizes Dickinson’s fantasy of being visited by a man at night. A Quiet Passion is a plaintive film, but because of Davies’ inventiveness and Nixon’s performance, it is also exciting if you’re the kind of person who finds fine filmmaking itself thrilling to watch.
The creative soul is necessarily contrary to convention. To be creative is, after all, to see and do things differently than how they’re normally done. With her staunch insistence on the value and vitality of the feminine intellect and her near-postmodern embrace of ambiguity, it would be tempting to call Dickinson “ahead of her time,” but to do so would be to simplify the vigorous spirit that motivated those then-eccentricities. Dickinson railed against time itself, and if she lived today, she’d likely be ever the iconoclast, challenging us to look deeper, feel deeper, and live deeper than we are prone on our own to do.
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