A QUIET PAS­SION, biopic, PG-13, Vi­o­let Crown,

Pasatiempo - - MOVING IMAGES - (Sun­set — Jonathan Richards

The life of a writer is a no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult chal­lenge to film. The life of a reclu­sive writer raises that dif­fi­culty ex­po­nen­tially. Emily Dick­in­son spent much of the last half of her too-short life mostly con­fined to her bed­room in her house in Amherst, Mas­sachusetts, hardly see­ing any­one but fam­ily. It was, how­ever, far from a wasted life. She pro­duced nearly 1,800 po­ems, al­most all of them un­pub­lished dur­ing her life­time. They even­tu­ally saw the light of print a few years af­ter her death in 1886 at the age of fifty-five, and they have since es­tab­lished her as one of the greats of Amer­i­can po­etry.

Dick­in­son’s life is the sub­ject Ter­ence Davies Song, The House of Mirth) has tack­led, and the re­sults are un­even. Davies has an ex­quis­ite vis­ual sen­si­bil­ity, and as cap­tured through the lens of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Flo­rian Hoffmeis­ter’s cam­era, the film’s vis­ual flow cre­ates its own po­etry. The ac­tors are not so lucky.

Davies, who wrote the screen­play, seems de­ter­mined to show us a model of life in mid-19th-cen­tury New Eng­land in which vir­tu­ally ev­ery word and ev­ery phys­i­cal move­ment is cir­cum­scribed by a stud­ied ar­ti­fi­cial­ity. Many scenes, par­tic­u­larly the in­te­ri­ors, are set up as un­com­fort­able tableaux. Maybe it was like that back then, but a lot of these scenes do not have the throb of liv­ing mo­ments.

The film splits the poet’s life into two parts. The open­ing finds the young Emily, played by Emma Bell, scan­dal­iz­ing the fac­ulty at Mount Holyoke Fe­male Sem­i­nary by spirit­edly re­fus­ing to ac­cept a des­ig­na­tion as ei­ther al­ready saved or hop­ing to be saved. She is dis­missed, and her fam­ily — fa­ther, brother, and sis­ter — ar­rive to pick her up at school. And this is where the first dis­cour­ag­ing inkling of the movie’s ver­bal in­ten­tions creeps in. When she sees them, Emily’s face lights up, and she ex­claims, “My hap­pi­ness would be com­plete if only Mother were with you!”

Set­ting aside the sin­cer­ity of this out­burst (the poet was not close to her mother, who was se­verely de­pressed and emo­tion­ally dis­tant), it’s just not the way words nat­u­rally burst from the mouth, and they raise a warn­ing flag. Much of Davies’ screen­play is filled with di­a­logue that seems ex­tracted faith­fully from the writ­ten word, from jour­nals, letters, and po­ems. But peo­ple don’t often speak the way they write, and the ef­fect is of char­ac­ters be­ing squeezed through a press of some­one’s idea of pe­riod au­then­tic­ity.

One of the film’s more in­ge­nious de­vices is the tran­si­tion from the young Emily to the ma­ture ver­sion. Davies sets this up with a photo por­trait ses­sion in which the mem­bers of the Dick­in­son fam­ily pose stiffly be­fore the cam­era, and as we watch through the pho­tog­ra­pher’s lens, they morph into their adult selves. Fa­ther re­mains the same, a won­der­fully pa­tri­cian Keith Car­ra­dine, but sis­ter Lavinia be­comes Jen­nifer Ehle, brother Austin emerges as Dun­can Duff, and Emily is trans­formed into Cyn­thia Nixon. The de­vice it­self is a great suc­cess, but the af­ter­math comes with prob­lems of its own. We don’t know ex­actly where we are in Dick­in­son’s life, but signs point to her mid-twen­ties, which for all their tal­ent and beauty is a tough lift for the fifty­ish Nixon and Ehle.

Most of the per­for­mances, grap­pling as they must with often stilted di­a­logue, are first rate, with par­tic­u­lar honors go­ing to the warm, ra­di­ant Ehle as Dick­in­son’s faith­ful sup­port and com­pan­ion, Vin­nie. Car­ra­dine man­ages an ef­fec­tive bal­ance be­tween stern pa­tri­arch and the lov­ing fa­ther who fos­ters his daugh­ter’s po­etic in­cli­na­tions. Poor Duff’s brother Austin is given pre­cious few scenes when his face is not dis­torted by an­guish or anger, and Mother ( Joanna Ba­con) seems to be per­pet­u­ally dy­ing un­til she fi­nally pulls it off. A jar­ring note en­ters in the form of Dick­in­son’s best friend Vryling Buf­fam (Cather­ine Bai­ley), an im­pos­si­bly arch young woman whose ev­ery ut­ter­ance is a quip or apho­rism, and who seems to be au­di­tion­ing for rein­car­na­tion as Dorothy Parker.

Aside from the dif­fi­cul­ties im­posed on her by the age is­sue, Nixon is per­sua­sive as she charts Dick­in­son’s arc from a ra­di­ant young woman who ex­hibits in­de­pen­dence of spirit but a timid­ity about tak­ing on the real world, and into the ec­cen­tric recluse she be­came. When she smiles, it’s with her whole face; and when a ter­ri­bly painful ill­ness over­takes her later in life, that whole face con­torts into an un­bear­able mask of agony.

You can’t pack a whole com­pli­cated life into a few reels of film, and Davies has le­git­i­mately cho­sen the strands he wants to fol­low. Stu­dents of Dick­in­son’s life will feel some ab­sences, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas of ro­mance and in­spi­ra­tion, and will no­tice lib­er­ties taken with what is in­cluded.

The cru­cial el­e­ment to a life of Emily Dick­in­son is the po­etry, and we hear a good sam­pling of her verse in voice-over on the sound­track as she scrib­bles an­i­mat­edly at her desk, and sews her po­ems into the small books, or “fas­ci­cles,” in which they were dis­cov­ered by Vin­nie af­ter her death, and steered into pub­li­ca­tion. One of her best-loved po­ems cov­ers the end­ing, as Dick­in­son’s cof­fin make its way to the grassy grave­yard:

Be­cause I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me —

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