On multiple levels, Terrence Davies A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon, Keith Carradine, Jennifer Ehle, and Jodhi May is a tone poem that succeeds up to a point, then stops too soon. Davies’ long-anticipated bio-pic about the fulfillment and angst surrounding the isolated spiritual poetic of Emily Dickinson’s life with her Amherst family is a slow drip of wit, verbal irony and beauty.
Throughout, Cynthia Nixon’s bountiful, stellar portrayal of Dickinson’s vital interior life is elucidated in part through her expressions of Dickinson’s conflict with the repressed social culture of a religious New England family from which she never separated. At times Nixon’s/Dickinson’s emotions erupt in a blaze of light and truth, then slowly sink below the surface back to her soul’s depths, like an elusive sea creature who momentarily bursts into view then returns to the waters of unconsciousness.
In a Q and A at the New York Film Festival 2016, Davies revealed his admiration and empathy for Dickinson whose work never saw the roundest spotlight of publishing day to receive noteworthy acclaim in her lifetime. It was only after she died in 1886 of complications from Bright’s disease, the condition which increasingly plagued her and caused her tremendous pain the last few years of her life, were Dickinson’s 1800 poems discovered by her sister Lavania who felt compelled to have them published.
Whether Dickinson was devastated that she never achieved the fame of a poet like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during her lifetime is largely a matter of speculation. Certainly, Davies examines this briefly in her discussion with a newspaper publisher who gives middling praise to her work, and we see that she is interested for her poems to be in print.
On the other hand Davies’ interpretation of Dickinson (he wrote the screenplay), reveals a quiet close and acceptance of things; it is a routine which in Davies’ rendition of Dickinson, she follows in each stage of her life from her teen years to her twenties and on when her mother becomes ill after she settles into her life with her family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thus, in the film she backtracks from pursuing other publishers after the publisher’s lukewarm and rather misunderstood reception to her work is given. It is one more instance of resignation and acceptance.
Davies’ shepherding of Nixon’s Dickinson intimates that the poet is caught up and enlivened by her inner life which her writing subtly manifests. Throughout the film, Davies includes Nixon’s reading of Dickinson’s poetry, intuiting when some of her more famous poems might have been written in the arc of her life’s development or perhaps including them because, in his perception, they appear to more sparely reveal the emotional undercurrents Dickinson experiences at various junctures during salient moments in time.
Davies configured the screenplay after reading biographies on Dickinson, imagining with a filmmaker/artist’s perspective the subtle aspects of Dickinson’s familial roles as a maverick ahead of her time, a sojourner of light, and a soaring spirit snared by the oppressive women’s roles and limited definitions she must inhabit in the Victorian age. Davies highlights her personal soul struggles in various scenes which develop with intensity during the film’s snail paced events.
We see her struggle to be subdued and obedient to her father’s opinions and prescriptions (Keith Carradine is both foreboding and ominous yet kind and loving), forcing herself to curb her acerbic wit and irony with religiously narrow-minded guests who deserve to confront their own ignorance, but not in the Dickinson household and not through the acid tongued wit of the younger generation. Davies uncovers and suggests her sorrow and breakdown at the loss of proximity with Reverend Wadsworth (who is married), who moves to California.
Though accounts indicate he was her earthly friend for life (she wrote to him until his death in 1882 and only saw him twice), Davies dramatizes her emotional response showing a depth of love and disconnect in perceiving that she is closer to him than the reality suggests. It is one of the key turning points which we note prompts Nixon’s Dickinson to gradually accept the reality of her spinsterhood. Though this dramatic segment of her emotionalism after Wadsworth leaves doesn’t quite ring accurate, Nixon’s portrayal at Dickinson’s sense of loss and yearning for love remains human and very real, however, induced Davies’ writing/interpretation is.
In various stages we note Dickinson’s importance to her family assuming the major role of caretaker and assistant variously with her emotionally vacant and ill mother, her aging, stern but intellectually encouraging father, her loving, close sister with whom she confides (Jennifer Ehle is fun-loving and supportive), and her friendship with her sister-in-law (Jodhi May remains empathetic), who is abandoned by her brother for a vapid and shallow mistress. We note that the more Dickinson’s interior life flourishes, the greater her retreat from external activities, social life and friends’ visits to the end development that she will only speak to them via a closed door.
Davies includes only a few examples of Dickinson’s time away from her family’s homestead in Amherst. Not only is this because she was the key authority figure in the family’s life after her mother becomes ill and they rely on her to be present at all times, but also because Davies reveals that like many writers whose best work is accomplished alone and in isolation, Dickinson enjoyed another realm of existence in her consciousness and imagination. It is a realm that we may glimpse only through her poetry and this of course, is completely open to subjective interpretation and only as accurate and thorough as is the experience, knowledge and acumen of the reader who reads/understands her poems.
Thus, as best as he may try, as fine as Nixon’s portrayal of Dickinson is, there is much we cannot fathom about her “reclusiveness” and her isolation, much that Davies has left untouched as he adheres to a more material interpretation in keeping with a domestic homely of her life with her family. This mundane choice which relies on witty conversations, strains in relationships between family members and conflicts Dickinson has with issues about her brother’s mistress, is not as thrilling as might have been if he had chosen to more completely intuit the treasures of her inner life with cinematic inference.
The writer’s life is one known only to the writer. That Dickinson wrote the quality, specific form and number of poems she did, worked and reworked them into their final copies with very specific punctuation which, after their publication, was sometimes misunderstood and changed, must not be overlooked as one of the primary reasons for her “isolation.”
Her secret life and identity, known only to her Davies suggests, but perhaps not strongly and powerfully enough. That her stash of poetry was only discovered after she died reveals the extent of the incredible rich, other-worldly pageantry that empowered and entertained her so that she wrote at length about it. These were not only grand issues of life, death and immortality, but about her love of God, her understanding about the hypocrisy of church institutions, her appreciation of spiritual elements. These elements are sometimes absent in this bio-pic. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing and complex look at one of the finest of American poets in the 19th century and for that reason, and Nixon’s performance is a must-see.