A QUIET PASSION, biopic, PG-13, Violet Crown,
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 She produced nearly 1,800 poems, almost all of them unpublished during her lifetime.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 —