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'A Quiet Passion' Dazzles Gradually

"The parasol is the umbrella's daughter...": Emily Dickinson (Cythnia Nixon) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) in <em>A Quiet Passion</em>.
Johan Voets
Music Box Films
"The parasol is the umbrella's daughter...": Emily Dickinson (Cythnia Nixon) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) in A Quiet Passion.

"A sheltered life can be daring too," the Southern writer Eudora Welty wrote in her 1984 memoir, One Writer's Beginnings. Writing about what and whom she saw around her, Welty enjoyed robust literary fame without ever marrying or moving out of her parents' house in Jackson, Mississippi.

A century earlier, Emily Dickinson also remained single and stayed home, where she wrote some 1800 poems that — stranded between hope and despair of getting published — she stitched together into booklets. A few of her formally precocious modernist verses made it into the local Massachusetts press, but Dickinson's lasting fame as a pre-eminent American poet was posthumous. The illness and anguish that plagued her last years, until her death in 1886 at the age of 56, helped cement her reputation as a plain-looking, difficult, neurotic spinster and, to some, an object of pity as a casualty of her puritanical time and place.

Now comes British director Terence Davies, with a magnificently volatile Cynthia Nixon in tow, to set the record as straight as he sees it. A longtime fan of Dickinson (he can be heard reading one of her poems in his 2008 Of Time and the City), Davies sets out less to undo than to deeply complicate glib views of the poet as a depressive, downtrodden hermit with little interest in the world outside her perch in the country town of Amherst, Massachusetts. He succeeds brilliantly: No one would call Nixon's Emily Dickinson a happy camper, but this is a riot grrl for her time, taking charge of her destiny and, in her tortured, compulsively honest way, her soul.

For starters, Davies' Dickinson could be a total gas given the right company — or the right adversary on whom to sharpen her wit. When first we meet her as a student played by Emma Bell, she's a lively, open-faced wench giving rebellious lip to an austere teacher who's trying to bend her lone "no-hoper" to the evangelical will. Her family rides to the rescue, and from then on she stays close to home, and then only at home, and finally only in her room, clad all in white and trading barbs with frustrated visitors from the safety of a doorway.

Dickinson struggled all her life with organized religion and with her sternly Puritan father (Keith Carradine, if you please, with fire and brimstone flying out of his eyes). There is family conflict to burn, and in less imaginative hands than Davies' this might make for a rote tale of domestic dysfunction. As devout Protestants go, though, the Dickinsons before us are lively, cultured free thinkers who provide the acknowledged family genius with the space and time to write (three a.m. till dawn), endless patience for her hand-flapping, and devoted care from her long-suffering sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) when she fell prey to excruciating pain and hovering self-doubt.

Intelligently feminist without ever shouting, A Quiet Passion gives us a poet who, physically but not intellectually isolated, is an avid reader of fellow nineteenth-century women writers George Eliot, the Brontes and "even, heaven save us, Mrs. Gaskell also." Dickinson rejoices in her feisty friend Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and, above all, her sister-in-law and most ardent supporter Susan (Jodhi May) even as she worships her depressive invalid mother (Joanna Bacon). She longs for a lover and a normal life, crushes on more than one male mentor, yet rejects marriage and chooses seclusion as artistic necessity.

Davies comes to Dickinson as a fanboy, and more. A Quiet Passion is a low bow before an artist he has fashioned into a kind of mirror image of himself. Filmmaker and subject are a match made in heaven that, cohabiting in Davies' delirious head, gives histrionic a good name. Both have spun gold out of stifling habitats — his an impoverished working class childhood in a Northern England industrial city, hers a hidebound small town in Massachusetts — that turned them inward, and gestated rich inner lives they turned into quiveringly sensitive experiments with form.

Making a movie about someone who doesn't get out much poses a special kind of challenge, but Davies has turned the Dickinson house into a schizoid place of opulent magic, now a dark, shadowy prison, now a gracefully lit, golden haven where Emily can retreat into her imagination. The insistently performative line readings, sprinkled with Nixon reciting Dickinson's poetry, underscore the rigid formality of their surroundings, yet feel entirely organic to a community defined more by word and idea than by action.

Known for her crisp edge in Sex and The City, Nixon gives off all manner of edges in A Quiet Passion. With her red hair scraped back into a tight bun and blue eyes sparkling with wit, glittering with rage or finally heavy with grief and pain, Nixon expertly runs up and down the emotional register, giving us an Emily in transition from playful, waggish, kind, loyal and busily social young woman to the angry, self-punishing, critical, desperately ill yet always productive writer who, in her conflicted way, chooses to retreat from marriage, sexual love and children in her thirties in order to pursue her life's work.

Davies stops short of the family feuds over publication of Dickinson's work that erupted after her death. We'll never know whether his Emily might have savored the irony of having her work edited and published by her brother's lover, Mabel Todd (Noemie Schellens), whom she had savaged for hurting her beloved Susan. By the time we bid farewell to Dickinson she is, by her own self-aware admission, a bitter woman, dismissive of herself and others, at times vituperative and sour, incandescent with rage and coruscating wit — and also seething with the fevered energy that spurred her enormous, adventurous output. A sheltered life, and daring too.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.