2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
here is a moment during A Quiet Passion (2017), an exquisite Emily Dickinson biopic directed by the tactful British filmmaker Terence Davies, in which a woman (Catherine Bailey) tells her best friend, the central Emily (Cynthia Nixon), that she is getting married. Emily, sitting across from the former with tears building in her eyes, wants to be happy for her friend. Yet she is overwhelmed with grief. Her friend, Vryling, is among the few people she’d classify as likemindedly radical. If Emily were to have a qualm about the hypocrisies of mid-19th-century American society, she’d be able to turn to Vryling. And if Vryling were to feel the need to spit out a thinly veiled
criticism about cultural expectations in general, she understood that Emily would laugh along, never to think to scold her for being vulgar or “improper,” as so many other women of the time period might.
The fact that Vryling is willing to give herself over to the marital tradition, at which she and Emily have long poked fun during their years of friendship, is confusing to the latter. But then Vryling explains herself. She is conforming, to Emily’s dismay, because she knows that continuing to be a sharp-tongued outsider for the rest of her life will eventually take its toll. If she gets married, settles down, and tries on contentedness, she’ll learn to be happy. Keep throwing around barbs and sticking with the glass-half-empty mindset and she’ll grow to become bitter and misanthropic. “It’s for the sake of peace or a quiet life,” Vryling says.
It is evident to Vryling, though, that Emily will not be following her lead. She tells her so. Vryling knows that her friend is too much Emily — meaning too in love with herself and her mind — to really devote herself to someone. Emily knows this too. And this will eat at her.
A Quiet Passion is Davies’s eighth feature-length film, and it builds on his long-standing reputation as a discerning filmmaker effortlessly able to capture the intricacies of the most complex of characters. Emily Dickinson, the epitome of the artist more celebrated posthumously than they would be during their lifetime, is an enigma, to be certain. She died young — at 54 — and was a known recluse, a characterization which severed as she aged. Speculation regarding what the true causes of her disaffection is still rampant: To this day, no one really knows what encouraged her sudden transformation from prolific, passionate artist to fierce ascetic.
Davies never quite directly comments on what he thinks was the real root of Dickinson’s always-progressing internal struggle. He posits that it was a combination of the fact that her work, though often published, was never taken as seriously as it should have been. That Dickinson, unwilling to marry have kids, was so much an outsider. That she was in love with two people — the married Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren) and possibly even the derisory Vryling — who couldn’t return her affection. That she, simply, was too bright to really connect with anyone.
But A Quiet Passion fundamentally is not trying to pick apart what made Dickinson, who’s for so long felt elusive and hard to understand, tick. It, straightforwardly, is compelled to see how she lived — intent on capturing her transition from a rebellious youth (as brought to life by Emma Bell) to unlikely poet to easily enraged hermit to, finally, tragic heroine. Certainly, this is not an unusual structure for a biopic.
But A Quiet Passion, so unrestrictedly emotional and reliant on dialogue as a tool to reveal larger personal truths, is unusual for a biopic. It is less about its biographical facets, as so many works of the genre are, and more about portraying a woman’s essence. Dickinson’s poems are read by Nixon, in voiceover, and are almost used in place of a musical score. So many scenes watch her in silence, whether she is working, or, as terrifyingly displayed in later portions of the film, experiencing various medical crises. These stylistic choices are as innovative as they are magnetic.
The film ultimately seems to wonder: What was it like to be anonymous when you wanted so badly to be renowned, a vaunted artistic and societal refusenik? What was it like to be Emily Dickinson? Nixon’s performance, one of the best of the decade, is so good that we come to believe that we’re really seeing Dickinson as she was: admirably herself, warts and all. Nixon is fearless. And so is Davies, who only seems to get better at writing and directing with age.
Together, they make not just one of the best films of 2017, but of the decade. That it has come to be recognized as an under-appreciated masterpiece is, eerily, in touch with the way Dickinson was somewhat acclaimed during her lifetime but never quite as ubiquitous as she should have been. What would it have taken for A Quiet Passion to be gazed at as someone other than a find? A