Strong willed Emily Dickinson’s biography comes to the screen in A Quiet Passion with a sharp delivery by actress Cynthia Nixon and it’s a personification you’ll not easily forget. Dressed in 19th century clothing and placed in an antebellum setting the actress holds nothing back as the real life story unfolds with unrelenting chastisement. If you like her works of mostly poetry and essays than this period piece is your cup of bitter tea.
The movie follows Emily Dickinson from her teen years (played by Emma Bell) through her death with Cynthia Nixon giving a superb performance as the troubled aristocratic poet. Opening with Emily wanting to leave her Evangelical school being oppressed by Miss Lyon (Sara Vertongen) a stern parochial schoolmaster, she shows her staunch personality and fighting spirit. It quickly moves to her formative years where we get introduced to her grown siblings, interaction with her purist aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) and the destiny that awaits her.
The film spools out like a stage play with a lot of dialogue by Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) that has little interaction beyond her immediate family. In most cases pregnant pauses are used between lines offering time to think about the meaning behind her statements that are sometimes mean and arrogant. Dickinson’s poetry gets a lot of screen time with Nixon narrating it followed by meaningful dialogue that sets the tone and dreary mood that conforms to the unsettled era in which she lives. The mid 1800’s are a time of unrest in America on the edge of a Civil War and Dickinson emits her thoughts resentfully on slavery, women’s rights and male domination.
But, A Quiet Passion is really a one woman show that puts Nixon in the spotlight showing her tour de force ability to imbue an obsessive women who forever fits the mold of a suffragette like Susan B. Anthony, Jane Adams or Antoinette Brown Blackwell that lived in the same era. She carries herself with an upper-class aloofness throughout, hardly ever breaking the mold and only showing limited compassion to the death of her family members. Her performance will certainly get noticed by the award givers, especially with a year crowded with super heroes and action actresses.
Director and writer Terrance Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) shoots his film with muted colors using a lot of firelight to depict the old-fashioned rooms and other interiors, while outside he captures sweeping vistas of tree lined roads and grand estates. The women’s costumes are rarely bright and cheery, rather they’re creams, muted pastel blues and browns offset by neckline trim of lace. Emily Dickinson’s attire consists of umbrella dresses and dark colored plain clothing of the era. Bonnets are commonplace throughout the film most of which look like they were designed from paintings of the art masters during early America.
A Quiet Passion has been rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material. Although it has historical and educational value the film gets a bit maudlin and sufferable at times. If you are interested in watching a person grumble about everything and everyone around her, then you have chosen the right movie. Much like her poetry, A Quiet Passion has a heavy heart with fighting spirit. Be cautious when deciding to allow immature children see the film as it does have some scenes that are inappropriate for youngsters.
FINAL ANALYSIS: If you like fine acting, then this film is your cup of tea.
Additional Film Information:
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Miles Richardson, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey
Directed and written by: Terence Davies
Genre: Costume Drama, Biography, Period Piece
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material
Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.
Release Date: May 12, 2017
Distributed by: Music Box Films