The heart asks pleasure first, and then, excuse from pain; and then those little anodynes that deaden suffering, and then, to go to sleep; and then, if it should be the will of its Inquisitor, the liberty to die.
In A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies tackles a massive & imposing subject, Emily Dickinson, a brilliant and enigmatic poet who created a strange & compelling body of work quite unlike any other. The film is really effective in terms of its emotional arc. I was really surprised to find myself laughing a lot in the first half, courtesy of a really witty script and some fine comic performances. It’s in the second half that the darkness slowly starts to fall as Dickinson retreats into her infamous hermitage and struggle with physical ailments and emotional disorders. The second half is a lengthy, kind of merciless portrait of a lonely, ill woman. There’s a harrowing scene, for instance, where Dickinson has a seizure and Davies just plants the camera and lets us watch her convulse and struggle for breath and control for what seems like an eternity. Davies has the eye of a documentarian and this film sometimes feels like a documentary, but even in the bleak second half the script still sparkles with really brilliant turns of phrase and deep emotional insights. The cast is quite brilliant as well. Cynthia Nixon, an actress I’ve never cared for, is quite wonderful as Dickinson; it’s effectively her show – thinking back on it now, it kind of seems like there isn’t a scene in the movie she isn’t in, after a brief prelude about Dickinson as a child, where she’s winningly played by young actress Emma Bell who is quite good. Joanna Bacon has a couple of absolute knock-out scenes as the mother of the family and Jennifer Ehle is, as always, excellent as Emily’s compassionate sister, Vinnie. And there’s a performance that is, for my money, both star-making & Supporting Actress Oscar worthy by Catherine Bailey as a vivacious friend of the Dickinson family with the very unlikely name of Vryling Buffam. The movie portrays the world slowly closing in on Emily; we see her often in the grounds of the Dickinson house at the beginning, then only in the house, then the upstairs, then her own room – it’s a sad, painful movie in a lot of ways, but it’s also a real masterpiece. And it will, if you let it, inspire you to seek out more of her poetry which is used to great effect in the film in voice-overs. It’s hard to say that Davies has done justice to Dickinson and he has, as all these movies do, taken some creative liberties in order to streamline the thematic and emotional arcs of the film. But he’s created a masterful, powerful film that is engrossing and compelling in exactly the right ways. 4 stars.
tl;dr – striking, engrossing film examines the life of Emily Dickinson; smart script and brilliant performances create an astoundingly great film. 4 stars.