More than halfway through A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) morphs into the figure we know in contemporary lore. Mourning her father, she begins to wear only white, a sartorial choice that shocks her black-clad, grieving siblings. She starts to stay upstairs in her Amherst house and will talk only with visitors who sit at the foot of her stairway so they can’t see her. Alone, she keeps vigil in the middle of the night, haunted by both the mortal terrors and deep desires that we recognize from her poetry.
We are, in some ways, as shocked as her siblings by this transformation, for though we’ve been expecting this incarnation of the poet, we’ve been seduced up to now by an acquaintance with a brilliant, passionate, sometimes shy and sometimes temperamental genius, hilariously profane and funny at times, haunted at others. Younger Emily is devoted to her family but suspicious, even defiant, of male authority — a loyal friend who is devastated when her friends marry and leave. She is a true 19th century heroine, tempestuous and strong, worthy of the Brontës, whom she idolizes. Her quick exchanges and occasionally awkward and painful but always interesting interactions with the people she loves make her ultimate retreat feel both understandable — she’s almost hyper-sensitive — and tragic. Over and over again throughout the film, the camera pans 360º around the walls of one room or another in Dickinson’s house, while Nixon reading of Dickinson’s verse provides the primary soundtrack. This contrast between inner life and outer claustrophobia seeps through each frame of A Quiet Passion, which manages to both grasp at the essence of this strange poet while also allowing space for the mystery of her genius to remain a mystery.
This film may not be the entire truth of Emily Dickinson’s life (far from being chaste, she had a serious romantic entanglement with a friend of her late father’s), but its gradual switch from witty New England family drama and poet’s coming-of-age to a study of claustrophobia, illness, death and anger gets at the core paradox of Dickinson’s work, and what we understand of her life. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Dickinson once said. A corollary statement for this film might be: if we feel physically as if we were imprisoned along with our bitterness and a number of ghosts inside a rural New England house, but also unlimited in our imaginative capabilities, we know that we are experiencing Emily.
Writer-director Terrence Davies, who also helmed the excruciating and gorgeous The House of Mirth adaptation that is beloved by Whartonites and film fans alike, is a natural fit for Dickinson’s life (like this project, that film begins with wit and banter before descending into darkness). The dialogue in particular — so quick and erudite that I immediately wanted to watch the film again, or at least the first half, before all the dying and yelling — is reminiscent of that project, particularly since both films are rare American-accented period dramas, which have a unique rhythm and feel.
To prepare for the project, Davies says he read six biographies. “What drew me to it was her spiritual quest… she oscillates between is there a god; is there a not a god; is there a soul; is there not a soul; if there’s a soul and there’s no god, what do you do?” he said during a Q &A at the New York Film Festival. “I was a very devout Catholic until I was 22… so I really responded to that.” He sets up his film by presenting a young Dickinson (played rapturously by The Walking Dead‘s Emma Bell) as the lone dissenter (“no-hoper”) at her seminary, a member of a family that is devout but encouraged to question and debate. But when such questioning brings Emily to a place where she won’t kneel at a minister’s request, or attend church at all, she comes into conflict with her father, a New England patriarch in the very traditional mold.
And yet he lets her write at night; she knows a husband might not do the same, and so she’s consigned to a life where her closest relationships are to her siblings (especially Jennifer Ehle’s warm but frustrated sister, Vinnie) and female friends like her sister-in-law and a radical friend. Watching the Dickinson family interact with various clergy and relatives, you cannot help but think of Puritans and those who rebel against them, of Alcott and Emerson and Hawthorne and the trial of Anne Hutchinson. The Dickinson family, especially Emily, embodied both of these tendencies at once. Although her inner circle recognized her gift, and occasionally even nurtured it, she was also cut down by men including editors and during one painful scene, her brother. And she died (of course the film shows her demise, in grim detail) a relative unknown. “That more than anything else really in a way sort of angered me. She deserved to be better known!” Davies said at the festival. That anger, that championship of Dickinson the woman, not just the posthumous curiosity, is clear in his project.
The poet’s eccentricities and alienation felt accessible to both the star (clad, for the festival in a stunning and slinky red dress that felt like a marked and intentional departure from Dickinson’s plain, white-clad appearance) and the “terribly timid” director. “I’ve always been an outsider, an observer,” said Davies.” I wouldn’t do anything adventurous or dangerous.” Nixon agreed. “As a young person, I really identified with the kind of shyness that she felt, but also how she felt that there were just great worlds inside her, if only someone might take the trouble to go over and peer in.”
“She’s such a major poet, so beloved by so many people,” Nixon continued, adding that Dickinson’s story hasn’t been filmed much before because of “how dauntingly interior” it is. “It takes a filmmaker like Terrence to understand that just because you spend a lot of time indoors… there can be very enormous and very dramatic worlds in there,” Nixon said. Many critics and audience members will find the film’s final sequences — in which drama is pulled from that indoor life — too stifling, but it’s hard to imagine a depiction of Dickinson’s life that made us feel so much like we were part of the family, part of her world. I’ve never been able to fully embrace Emily Dickinson’s work, feminist literary obsessive though I am, finding it both treacly and obscure. But this film made me actually want to sign up and take another class on her poetry, which made it more successful for me than dozens of excellent teachers, professors and critics have been.