This delicate and thoughtful film – small in scale but brimming with the quiet passion of the title – imagines the life of the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, played with brittle, red-eyed intensity by ‘Sex and the City’ star Cynthia Nixon. It takes some commitment to adjust to the dialogue and manners of the era. But once you do, you’ll find that this is a film with endless wit, wordplay and wry observation hidden under its bonnet. Like Dickinson, it finds humour in pompousness, and it finds subtle ways – often through playing with light and time – of making us feel, strongly, how Dickinson ached with the joy and pain of her world.
Written and directed by British filmmaker Terence Davies (‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’), ‘A Quiet Passion’ is set almost entirely within the Massachusetts home where Dickinson, who grew increasingly unwell and solitary in adulthood, was raised and lived until her death in 1886. We hear Dickinson’s poems, few of which were published in her lifetime, mostly in voiceover, while we witness the intensity of her relationship with her parents (Keith Carradine, Joanna Bacon) and siblings (Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff).
The talk is pointed and careful in a household that savours the power and meaning of words, but it’s as much the imagery that makes this film such a painterly joy. A scene where we watch the Dickinson family, one by one, grow old in front of a photographer’s lens, is one for the ages. It’s rare to see a film that makes such subtle sense of an artist’s life and mind.