Dickson biopic’s performance poetry


Four stars

Director Terence Davies

Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine

Rating PG

Running time 125 minutes

Verdict Performance poetry

US POET Emily Dickinson is a tough nut to crack, but Cynthia Nixon has the right tools.

The Sex and the City star might not seem like an obvious choice to play the reclusive writer who was largely unpublished during her own lifetime — two Tony Awards notwithstanding.

But the fervid intelligence of her performance is what sustains this rich and intimate portrait.

After watching A Quiet Passion, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role — so completely does Nixon make it her own.

And English director Terence Davies’ distinctive style — his films are like a series of moving tableaux — hasn’t suited a subject this well since his celebrated autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) which were set in Liverpool, northwest England, in the 1940s and 50s.

There’s something that feels authentically 19th Century about the way Davies dissolves a portrait of the young Dickinson (Emma Bell) into one that frames Nixon in the same pose.

Time passes almost imperceptibly in the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts — ruled by the stern but loving Edward (Keith Carradine) — after Emily extricates herself from the religious evangelism of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

media_cameraCynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in a scene with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) from A Quiet Passion. Picture: Johan Voets

But the tone changes and “eras” begin to emerge.

Dickinson is close to her siblings (Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff) and her early days at home are chatty and happy.

Lavinia (Vinnie) and Emily’s witty, rebellious friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) enlivens their spare time.

But as the years pass, Buffam marries and moves away. Dickinson’s poems are rejected. The mood darkens. The writer gives voice to her aching loneliness, forms intense, inappropriate romantic attachments, and is diagnosed with kidney disease.

As she ages, Dickinson’s idiosyncrasies become more pronounced. She dresses in white, as a kind of anti-mourning, and her desire for solitude intensifies until she barely leaves the room.

But while Davies and Nixon allow Dickinson’s peculiarities full reign, they never reduce her to a curiosity. And through it all, she writes.

A Quiet Passion is not an easy film to watch — the death tableaux, in particular, are quite confronting for those of us who have grown up in a time when it the process tends to be more mediated.

And yet you stay with it, until the bitter end. And as the credits roll, you are pleased you have.

A fitting tribute to a singular woman.

A Quiet Passion is now showing

Originally published as Dickson biopic’s performance poetry

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