First it was “Sex and the City.” Now it’s abstinence in Amherst for Cynthia Nixon, who holds her knees together tight as Emily Dickinson -- the poster poet for virginity -- in “A Quiet Passion,” Brit Terence Davies’ take on America’s chilliest wizened-rhymer. Boy, if ever there was a character Nixon needs to read her “Miranda” rights to, it’s Dickinson, a cold fish who treats sexual relations like Superman treats kryptonite. But philosophically, Dickinson was Miranda’s equal in every way, believing in a woman’s right to choose her own path in a male-dominated society.
Not an easy thing in mid-19th-century Massachusetts, where God fearing was the No. 1 pastime. And it showed in Dickinson’s art and how it was received, seeing only a dozen of her hundreds of poems published during her lifetime. Even then, she was subjected to affronts by male editors she loathed for monkeying with her intricate punctuation. It’s a point Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea”) repeatedly drives home in giving us a portrait of a woman who was a victim of her puritanical times, yet never backed down or suffered fools. It’s what drew men to Dickinson -- and what drove them away.
That includes her father (Keith Carradine), with whom she shared a deep love of God, but differed greatly on the significance of religion. She was equally contradictory in her views on family, avowing complete devotion to her parents and siblings, yet spent much of her later years locked away from them inside her bedroom, where she dressed exclusively in white linens. You can’t decide if she’s merely eccentric or batty. And Nixon isn’t letting on which it is in a performance that ranks with her finest.
At 51, she’s a tad too mature to be believable as Dickinson in her 20s and 30s. But that’s just a minor distraction in what proves to be a full-faceted journey from girlish moxey to borderline madness in a 30-year span. And Davies adjusts his film’s tone to match the shift in moods. He -- and the movie -- are at their most enjoyable in the sunny days, when his script is rich in comedy, something along the order of Whit Stillman’s 2016 gem, “Love & Friendship.” It’s during this period, roughly 1855 to 1870, that we also meet Dickinson’s closest friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a flamboyant motor mouth straight out of a Jane Austen novel.
Nixon, good sport that she is, gives Bailey all the room she needs to steal the picture with some of Davies’ best written quips, all delivered while coquettishly twirling a parasol. Lines like, “Going to church is like going to Boston; you only enjoy it after you’ve gone home.” Or, “Women should aspire to be younger than their waistlines.” And my favorite, “America is the only country that looks at death as some kind of personal failure.” Unfortunately, Bailey is so good, so vivacious and in the moment, that the picture flattens considerably when a suitable husband removes Vryling from Dickinson’s orbit.
Her departure also takes the wind out of Emily’s sails, setting her on a steady decline that will intensify with a quick succession of people close to her dying. Or, what I like to refer to as the “three funerals and a wedding” portion of the film. And Davies allows things to grow pretty dour, to the point that it feels like he’s given us two vastly different movies, with the light and fluffy Emily at the start and the bitter and resentful Dickinson in the end. It’s like going from Goldie Hawn to Ingmar Bergman in the bat of a lash.
Yet Nixon excels in both modes, exuding the feistiness of Dickinson’s youth and the sourness of her adulthood, when she became obsessed with death and a need to achieve immortality. Ironically, she didn’t live to see herself become immortal, and that’s the most heartbreaking aspect -- even more than her failure to find requited love. Nixon makes you feel it, too, with a performance that never panders and speaks only in truth. And truth is, Dickinson wasn’t a very pleasant person in her 40s and 50s, when she became controlling and judgmental of her two siblings: Younger sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and especially older brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), who she berated for his marital infidelities.
As any fan of Dickinson’s poetry will tell you, she was even harder on herself, carrying to her early grave (she died of Bright’s disease at 55) the belief that she was a failure as a poet and a person, particularly when it came to her family. It’s lamentable that Davies didn’t dig deeper into this overpowering angst and its roots. Did she inherit it from her mother (Joanna Bacon), who also became a recluse? Or was it being denied a family of her own, which would seem logical considering how dear she held onto the belief that family is everything. That’s what you wish Davies built his film around. Instead, he takes the well-traveled road of the tick-tock bio-pic in which every major event is chronologically laid out in neat, easy-to-understand increments.
It’s the kind of thing an against-the-grain devotee like Dickinson would hate. And it’s even more disappointing considering Davies’ record of bucking Hollywood norms with challenging stories (from “The House of Mirth” to last year’s “Sunset Song”) about women asserting themselves in sticky, chauvinistic climates, His latest does some of that, but given Dickinson’s stature as a pioneering feminist, it’s a “Passion” that I found to be far too quiet.
“A Quiet Passion”
Cast includes Cynthia Nixon, Keith Carradine, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Emma Bell, Catherine Bailey and Joanna Bacon.
(PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive materials.)