A Quiet Passion
GFF 2017: Cynthia Nixon astonishes in Terence Davies' typically astute take on the life of poet Emily Dickinson
Filmmaker Terence Davies has proved an astute observer of the plight of women encumbered by expectation, whether familial or societal, with films such as The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea and 2015's Sunset Song featuring strong women fighting against the tide. And so it is with his latest, which benefits from a barnstorming performance by Cynthia Nixon as firebrand American poet Emily Dickinson.
While only a handful of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, and she gained literary reverence after her death in 1886 at the age of 55, Davies' film paints a compelling portrait of a quick-witted, intelligent woman (played in her younger years by Emma Bell) who took pleasure in railing against the strict religious doctrines of her time.
Refusing to go to church, instead using the time to pen reams of verse, she enjoys hugely entertaining debates with her Catholic lawyer father (Keith Carradine) and her pious aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland). Indeed, Nixon's deft handling of Davies' rapid-fire, and often deeply humorous, dialogue elevates what could have been a formulaic period drama into something rather more warm and compelling.
Although set almost entirely within the confines of the Dickinson household – realised in meticulous period detail by production designer Merijn Sep and softly lensed by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister – this is a film with expansive ideas. While Dickinson may be a rebellious soul, she is also emotionally vulnerable, desperate to be praised for her work and, aside from her family (in particular spirited younger sister Lavinia, played by a brilliant Jennifer Ehle), unable to make any really meaningful connections.
As illness and death cast their shadow over the film's final third and Dickinson transforms into something of a recluse, A Quiet Passion becomes both a celebration of the creative spirit, and a poignant reminder of its fragility.
Screening on Thu 23 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2017. General release from Fri 7 Apr.