In “A Quiet Passion,” the period-drama veteran Terence Davies (“Sunset Song,” “The House of Mirth”) turns his attention to poet Emily Dickinson. The prolific writer may not have had the most cinematic existence — she spent most of her days holed up inside her childhood home — but that doesn’t lessen of the impact of this tribute to Dickinson’s genius, which is by turns funny, tragic and thrilling.
The writer-director wisely uses the poet’s life to explore the stifling societal norms of the day: all the puritanical piety and rigid decorum that made Dickinson feel so painfully out of place.
“You are alone in your rebellion, Ms. Dickinson,” a headmistress tells a young Emily (Emma Bell), who has some questions about religion, despite her strong faith. It won’t be the last time Emily gets admonished for challenging the prevailing wisdom. And yet she does accept some sense of order.
In an early scene, she asks her father (Keith Carradine) for permission to write every night from 3 a.m. until dawn, so she can take advantage of the quiet house. Even he seems surprised at the request; she could easily have done so without anyone noticing. But Emily has her own sense of right and wrong. Later, when she and her father sit down for breakfast, he complains about having a dirty plate, so Emily picks it up as if to inspect it, then smashes it on the table. Problem solved.
The adult Emily is played by Cynthia Nixon, and we follow her through the minor bursts of action that break up the monotony of her life. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie is how amusing it is. Emily’s quick-witted, independent best friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), provides much of the comic relief, with her barbed repartee and outrageous views.
The Dickinsons’ God-fearing friends and family also provide laughs, especially a pastor’s wife (Simone Milsdochter) who abstains from drinking — not just liquor, but also lemonade and tea.
The lightness early in the movie eventually gives way to something darker, though, especially as Emily’s confidantes begin to disappear. First Vryling gets married and moves away, and then Emily’s father dies. Her only solaces are her kindhearted sister (Jennifer Ehle) and writing — but even that can send her into despair, knowing she’ll never get the recognition she craves.
The movie is punctuated by Dickinson’s own writing, read in voice-over by Nixon. At times, she also recites it in character, looking at her brother’s new baby, for example, and saying, “I’m nobody! Who are you?”
The drama is marked by a stilted formality, but it works, especially in the context of a story about how suffocating customs can be for a woman who plans to avoid marriage and stay with her immediate family, where she feels safe.
Davies is a master of the slow build, lyrically evoking the dreaminess and gravity of his subject and her verse. In one scene, he employs fantasy to show Emily imagining a man ascending the stairs to greet her, but he also uses images of carnage that look like they could have been pulled from documentarian Ken Burns’s “The Civil War.” These contradictions carry over into Nixon’s outstanding portrayal. The actress always conveys a disarming sense of vulnerability, even when she’s at her most obstinate.
It’s strange, although not necessarily surprising, that it took so long for a movie about Emily Dickinson to get made. It’s not easy to do justice to such a beloved, enigmatic artist, but “A Quiet Passion” was well worth the wait.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains disturbing images of war casualties and brief suggestive material. 126 minutes.