Partway through A Quiet Passion Emily Dickinson’s father pleads with her to rejoin her family at church. “Your soul is not a trivial matter,” he implores her.
“That’s why I’m so meticulous in guarding its independence,” Emily (Cynthia Nixon) retorts.
A Quiet Passion takes no such precautions. From the beginning—when we meet Emily as a teenager—she’s headstrong and difficult, but the movie’s version of Emily Dickinson and her family is also wildly stilted; a flat character delivering flat lines. Which is awful because it doesn’t have to be; Emily Dickinson is a fascinating woman. A rebel in her time, she (strongly) held non-conformist views about her place as a woman in society. She used her work to actively question the norms of the time, particularly on marriage, and usually in the verse equivalent of a middle finger. She explored her anguish, her health, her family, her sexuality, her fears, her God— and she rhymed it all to boot. The arc of A Quiet Passion traces her adult life, her evolution from sassy sister to (as she argues) spiteful spinster. But A Quiet Passion can only hold onto one facet of her persona at a time.
To say it’s like four different versions of Emily Dickinson clamoring for screen time would be misrepresentative. It’s more like four different versions smiling patiently and taking turns, leaving the audience to follow along as we jump between scenes. Focused mainly on her adult years, navigating society and family, moments of brilliance are scattered haphazardly: Nixon’s performance as Emily as her poetry acknowledged for the first time by a local pastor is stirring, as writer-director Terence Davies melts the world around her, focusing in on the shock, joy, and relief passing over Nixon’s face. Though the actors can never bring the script together (often it seems as if they’re acting in separate plays), Catherine Bailey’s turn as Miss Vryling Buffum, a friend of the Dickinsons, manages to carry the witty musicality so often found in Emily’s work to the screen.
However, too often inconsistent editing leaves these moments feeling like the exception, not the rule. As the movie shifts between time and focus, the script buckles under the weight of having to introduce too much exposition at the top of any given scene. Characters flitter in and out of the frame of the narrative seemingly at random.
Sometimes it feels like Davies is playing with that notion of expectation in creative ways: His camera takes full 360-degree turns around the room, allowing the audience to soak up the lavish costumes, the elegant sets, the drama playing out across the room. Emily’s poems transition the audience between focus points, serving narratively as the “lessons learned” from the chapters we see. At one point it verges into full on Ken Burns Civil War documentary (complete with images faded into a flag-waving, and voiceover) while at another the Dickinson children sit down to have their portrait taken and literally age in front of our eyes.
But even when taken at their best these details can’t smooth over the infrastructure for the entire movie. It’s all about what works in the moment with no consideration of the effect on A Quiet Passion as a whole.
The film gains a bit more focus in its second half: it’s a slightly more authentic, with more emotional foundation (however shaky) to build from. Speaking chronologically, the earlier the story is (both in the movie and the timeline), the flatter the lines. Like an exasperated teen the script knows what it’s trying to say, it just isn’t quite sure how. The careful planning and staging that happens from the camera and the set design can’t be extended to the story; things happen because it’s their time to happen in Emily’s life, not because there’s been groundwork laid down by the script.
The second half is also when A Quiet Passion starts to decide what it’s really going to be: A movie about Emily’s foibles around marriage, and her place in it. But it’s too late. Davies can’t seem to marry the tempestuous woman Emily Dickinson was in real life with the eloquent discernment she placed on the page. What the film is left with is a shadow of the woman herself, gaining insight as quickly as she loses it.
Nixon is at her best when the movie lets her be, but unfortunately those are also when the miseries of the Dickinsons’ life are unleashed again. Whatever joy there was in Emily Dickinson’s life ends up awash in the dramatics of it all. Her narrative and her poetry are just too much for the tepid A Quiet Passion to handle; her lines, laced with biting venom, land with all the force of a doily, and her heart’s independence is lost in the scuffle.