A Quiet Passion
Considering the often somber nature of Emily Dickinson’s poems, it’s a pleasant surprise that, at least through the lens of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, her life had plentiful moments of joy that were commonly caused and/or augmented by witty wordplay.
First glimpsed as a defiant student played by Emma Bell, Emily is a firecracker of unpredictability struggling to find her place in a restrictive setting.
Davies (who also wrote the screenplay) conveys the decorum of 19th century New England with gorgeous mannered shots, occasionally finding room for flair – none better than the show-stopping sequence where Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) and his three children have their individual portraits taken and, with the aid of subtle yet wondrous digital effects, age before the camera.
Its players much changed, A Quiet Passion follows adult Austin (Duncan Duff), Lavinia a.k.a. Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and Emily (Cynthia Nixon) as they attempt to integrate into modern society or exist beyond its reach. Enriching their lives is the hilarious Catherine Bailey as their neighbor Vryling Buffam, a rebel with a sharp tongue whose imaginative vocabulary inspires a similar verbal fire in Emily, whose own strong command of language crops up in the handful of poems read by Nixon in voiceover.
Such games, however, may only take these young men and women so far, and as the growing pressure of tradition makes its mark, Emily’s health declines. Difficult as her episodes are to watch, there’s a hypnotic nature to Nixon’s thrashing head while in the throes of a seizure as the blurring speed turns her face into unrecognizable, borderline monstrous variants.
In these moments and others that embrace the film’s encroaching darkness, memorable performances arise cast-wide, but as with a binge-read of Emily’s work, it’s frequently challenging to derive pleasure from the experience.
Grade: B-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photo: Music Box Films)