There is a shot near the start of “A Quiet Passion” in which the entire Dickinson coterie of Amherst, Massachusetts is gathered before a fire one early evening. The camera begins on young Emily (Emma Bell), quietly contemplative, before gradually circling the room, taking in the rest of her family at leisure, reading or knitting, silence permeating the room aside from a few crackles in the fireplace and the ticking of a clock. Such silence strands you with your thoughts, which no doubt is where Emily, so famously aloof and isolated, spent much of her time, where the mysteries and paradoxes of the universe can overwhelm, which is where she seems to wind up as this shot concludes, her contemplativeness having given way to a quivering fear, as if she has suddenly become aware of the slow funeral march of time, like there is not enough time to spend it on this sort of quiet contemplation, or as if this sort of quiet contemplation might not be near enough in a life that goes so quick.
It’s a shot emblemizing the approach of director Terence Davies, where the typical trappings of a biopic are jettisoned, his subject’s existence not laid out in some broad overview but conveyed in action and behavior, time not demarcated by titles on the screen but just slipping by, never more acutely or sorrowfully than in the re-creation of Dickinson’s famed daguerreotype, where Emma Bell becomes Cynthia Nixon in the snapping of photo, countless years lost in a literal flash.
“A Quiet Passion” opens not in Amherst but at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where, after deliberately stranding herself apart from her other repenting classmates, Davies cuts Emily and the pious instructor down to close-ups as they verbally spar, Emily proving she can give as good, if not better, than she gets. It’s not that Emily doesn’t believe in God, but that she questions the manner in which she is asked – nay, demanded – to express her faith. It, in a manner of speaking, is between her and God, no one else, evoking the sentiment of a more modern poet, one Tupac Shakur, who declared “Only God Can Judge Me.” She’s a Victorian Era Riot Grrrl, sort of, submissive to her family and her father (Keith Carradine), evinced by literally asking for permission to stay up and write poetry, never allowing it to interfere with regular life, but also out of her time, glimpsed when she confronts a male publisher about editing her work, a confrontation she takes from the top of the stairs, looking down on him, deliberately staking out the power position.
Her proto-feminist attitude coalesces in her friendship with the Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a fictional character who is nevertheless mischievously alive. Though Emily is portrayed as close to her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), the film’s most pertinent relationship is between Emily and Vryling, their scenes together evincing an acerbic “Love & Friendship” drawing room air, delighting in each other’s company and their antagonistic attitudes toward a domineering society. If pop culture often resigns Emily Dickinson to the idea of a dour recluse, here Davies and Nixon reclaim her as a more lively spirit. And though Emily finds herself stricken with affection for a married Reverend (Eric Loren), this affection is based more on intellect than amorousness, “A Quiet Passion” delineating Vryling as Emily’s true emotional equal. And so Emily’s unraveling begins in the wake of Vryling’s marriage, a union not so subtly conveyed as a signing away of the deed to her soul in the name of money and stature, a thought which, Emily, no matter how much she may pine for a marriage of her own, cannot bear.
The rebellious countenance that Emily cuts through much of the film’s early half would seem in stark contrast to “A Quiet Passion’s” back half, where the boxes the world forces women into force her into seclusion, almost exclusively withdrawing into her bedroom. Yet her titular urge remains intact, glimpsed in the film’s one flight of fancy as she imagines a gentleman caller entering the home and coming to her room. This is as fantastic as the imagery of Davies gets, not that his cinematography, done by Florian Hoffmeister, is un-explosive in its habitual stillness.
Far from it, in fact, as Davies and Hoffmeister frequently place Nixon in static frames as she conveys what rises up inside Emily, most effectively with a smile that grows and recedes, grows and recedes, in the middle of monologues and sentences, like the tide, as if the force within her, joy and melancholy, are tugging back and forth at all times. It exudes a sense of great feeling that, if not harnessed in poetry, has nowhere else to go, a constriction of her passion the film impressionistically connects to her health deterioration, as if welled up with so much that she might burst, and which is where she seems to end up as the movie ends on her deathbed in which Nixon does not merely evoke the physical pain of Bright’s Disease but something like an eruption of the soul, a moment shot from above, the God’s Eye shot, harkening back to the beginning, as if it really has come down to just her and Him.
Her family is at her side, of course, yet the film leaves you with Emily’s imposed isolation, a closing shot of the camera descending into the grave evoking a terrifying finality of a coffin’s separation from all living things. An earlier moment, in the wake of Vryling’s wedding, captures it even better, as the camera, positioned at the back of the church, observes the post-ceremony processional and then drifts to the left, finding Emily watching everyone else go. When everyone has, the camera dips just below the rows of pews, making it seem as if Emily is sitting not in a long backed bench but in a boat on the water, a character in a Winslow Homer painting brought to life, left to face the world all alone.