In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon stars as Emily Dickinson. The actor, it must be mentioned, is best known for her role as Miranda on Sex and the City, although she’s invited to push her acting chops a little further here as the physically and mentally troubled poet.
Nixon succeeds absolutely in the lead, playing the idiosyncratic punctuatrix with subtlety and skill that brings the passion of the film’s title inescapably to the screen. In fact, one often wishes that the former TV star had been given a better movie in which to play the part.
A Quiet Passion is not bad through and through. It has virtues beyond Nixon’s performance, such as Jennifer Ehle‘s steady if uninteresting turn as Emily’s sister Vinnie, or the decorous austerity of the period art design. The film’s portrait of Dickinson, paired with that of the world she inhabits, establishes gracefully enough the tragic suppression of the gifted woman in upper crust 19th century America.
But a number of serious problems keep the film from being what it might have. Story wise, it gets stuck between an earnest meditation on Emily’s psychology and an unimaginative, uneventful costume drama. While the second, more hapless half is the better one, the story begins with a totally gratuitous act depicting Dickinson’s youth, and proceeds through a hackneyed first hour devoted entirely to the exposition of Emily’s unconventionality, Emily’s wit, and the fact that Puritans are stuffy.
Nixon plays Dickinson from some time in her twenties (a stretch) to her death at fifty five. But as these three decades pass through the stodgy biopic, their passing goes almost unnoticed, mainly on account of how little has happened and how superficial the drama has remained. A change in makeup might have helped, but then again so would a plot.
All in all, it isn’t quite clear what A Quiet Passion is about. While Dickinson’s poetry is repeatedly referred to, and several scenes include the verse in murmured narration by Nixon, this isn’t really the kind of biopic that concerns itself with the act of art-making, like Amadeus or the Paul Dano bits in 2014’s Love and Mercy. Rather than crazed toiling, Emily’s writing seems the only really easy and natural thing in her life, done by night with the permission of her mildly misunderstanding father.
So what is Emily Dickinson’s struggle? Is it with her social difficulties? With so much of the film devoted to her curious and whimsical conversations with family and close friends, that seems unlikely. Her failing health? No, despite one or two shaking fits that bring the mood down, but don’t really constitute a central storyline. Her isolation? Isolated she is, but by choice, and not to much dramatic effect. Dickinson’s life is clearly an unhappy one, but it’s never apparent what writer and director Terrence Davies, known for The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, has to say about it.
Part of the problem is tone. While the main concern seems to be with the corrosive unhappiness of the shut-in genius, life in the Dickinson manner of the film is anything but stark, presenting instead an almost sitcom-like revolving door of colourful guests, portrayed flatly and without purpose. Particularly difficult to stomach is Emily’s brash and independent friend Vryling Buffam, who comes onscreen to exchange contrived Wildean witticisms with Emily as if in a poorly directed college production of Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Despite these distractions, the film is, at its core, a meditation on the depths of human misery. As such, it does achieve moments of transcendence: a fantasy sequence here, a slow tracking shot there, a handful of exchanges between Emily and her relatives in which you find yourself leaving the general blandness behind and instead becoming suddenly and authentically depressed.
A Quiet Passion is screening on September 12th as part of TIFF’s Masters section, and is expected to come to theatres across Canada in early 2017.