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'Quiet Passion' Captures The Wit And Vulnerability Of Poet Emily Dickinson


This is FRESH AIR. The British filmmaker Terence Davies often has told stories about women trapped in the rigid customs of an earlier era, including the "House Of Mirth," "The Deep Blue Sea" and "Sunset Song." With his new film, "A Quiet Passion," the writer-director turns his attention to a real life subject, the poet Emily Dickinson. Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "A Quiet Passion" begins with a young Emily Dickinson being kicked out of Mount Holyoke College, a Christian women's university for her unorthodox religious views. It is not the last time this great American poet will be mischaracterized by Mayans and doctrines far feebler than her own.

If Dickinson questioned God that the movie suggests, it was because she knew that he had given her the spirit and the intellect with which to do so. Certainly, she has no interest in answering to mere mortals. In this scene, Emily, played by Cynthia Nixon, argues with a pastor played by Miles Richardson who takes her to task for her insufficient piety.


MILES RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) And you, Ms. Dickinson, what of you?

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) What of me, sir?

RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) Will you not kneel and give yourself to God?

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) No, sir, I will not kneel. Though, I think that God has already given himself to me.

RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) That was profane.

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) It was not meant so, sir.

RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) Do you guard your soul, Emily?

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) As best as I am able, sir.

RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) And hell? What of hell?

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) Avoid it if I can, endure it if I must.

RICHARDSON: (As Pastor) That was irreligious, young lady.

NIXON: (As Emily Dickinson) Then I beg God's pardon for my impiety.

CHANG: Nixon gives a brilliant performance of steely wit, but also surprising vulnerability. As she moves through the sunny gardens and lamplit drawing rooms of 19th-century Amherst Massachusetts, Nixon's Emily rebukes every reductive image we have of her as a dour reclusive spinster. She is, on the contrary, a brilliant conversationalist and a lover of good company. She is also a gifted poet who spends the wee hours of the morning lost in her writing, making what will one day be hailed as a monumental contribution to American literature.

She does this with the permission of her father, played by Keith Carradine who is both enchanted and exasperated by his daughter's razor-sharp mind and ungovernable spirit. The seams of the Dickenson's together at home beautifully filmed by the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister are a delight, even the ones that royal with tension. You understand that this is a household where both religious devotion and intellectual freedom have been nurtured and allowed to co-exist. Written and directed by the British filmmaker Terence Davies, "A Quiet Passion" creates an inner world that for all its rigid social and personal constraints feels alive with the possibilities of language.

The formal dialogue with its stately mannered rhythms becomes a kind of music. Simply listening to it can be bewildering at first, then absorbing, then transfixing. Its purpose in line with the highest ideals of poetry itself is to clear the mind and stir the soul. If that sounds a bit austere, rest assured that Davies also wants to make you laugh.

The movie's first half is a riotous assemblage of drawing room banter to rival last year's Jane Austen comedy "Love And Friendship." Emily occasionally butts heads with her brother Austin played by Duncan Duff and enjoys the close companionship of her sister Vinnie played by Jennifer Ehle. But in the movie's second half, Emily greets a series of difficult personal losses, including the departure of cherished friends and the deaths of her parents. The tonal register constricts, the rooms darken and the story edges almost imperceptibly toward tragedy, as Emily makes her slow and steady march toward solitude, illness and death. "A Quiet Passion" beautifully marries two strains in Davies' earlier films.

His semi-autobiographical masterworks, "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes," captured the visual and emotional texture of domestic life. While his later literary adaptations, most notably his magnificent 2000 film "The House Of Mirth" have revealed him to be an unusually sharp sensitive portraitist of women. Indeed, there is something of Edith Wharton in Davies's conception of Emily Dickinson as a woman tragically ahead of her moment. And also in Nixon's performance, a tour de force of impeccable diction and raw, unruly feeling.

At times, Emily's tears flow as freely as her words. And you feel the wrenching tension between her deep understanding of the world's imperfection and her search for the words that would capture it perfectly. In these moments, the film's pursuit of a higher form of artistic truth merges beautifully with Dickinson's own.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, Rick Ankiel was a rookie pitching sensation for the St. Louis Cardinals when something strange happened in his first playoff game.

RICK ANKIEL: I threw that pitch and something in the back of my mind - I just felt like, man, I just threw a wild pitch on national TV.

BIANCULLI: Suddenly, mysteriously, his control vanished and wouldn't come back. Ankiel talks about his pitching demons, his troubled childhood and his new memoir "The Phenomenon." Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.