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A Quiet Passion, review - 'Cynthia Nixon is an indrawn Emily Dickinson' | reviews, news & interviews

A Quiet Passion, review - 'Cynthia Nixon is an indrawn Emily Dickinson'

A Quiet Passion, review - 'Cynthia Nixon is an indrawn Emily Dickinson'

English director Terence Davies turns his austere eye on a great American poet

Sexless in no city: Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in 'A Quiet Passion'

Is there something about the recessive life of Emily Dickinson that defies dramatisation? I'm beginning to think so after A Quiet Passion. The Terence Davies film may attempt a more authentic take on the unrelievedly bleak, and also great, 19th-century American poet than the stage vehicle about her, The Belle of Amherst, now long past its sell-by date. But whether serving a film biography or a solo theatre venture, Dickinson seems somehow to elude aesthetic capture, or maybe it's just that she turns out to be as oblique as the landscape of her most enduring poems.

On the face of it, Dickinson might seem well-matched to Davies, the English writer-director whose penchant for penetrating studies of anguished women (The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song) ought to place Cynthia Nixon's performance in  a recognisable spectrum, of distant voices and still lives.A Quiet PassionInstead, Davies's screenplay is remarkable mostly for an archness and artifice only partially redeemed by several of the performances. To be sure, Nixon is entirely committed, but Jennifer Ehle is just as captivating as Emily's more spirited younger sister Lavinia. There is a grave beauty to the whole that approximates in visual terms to something of the poetry's eloquent formality. Here's just a taste of Dickinson's unyielding language, taken from the end of one of her most celebrated anatomies of trauma: "As freezing persons, recollect the Snow – / First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – ".

One can imagine the frisson that might have been generated had Dickinson ever been handed over to the likes of Robert Bresson – and a younger Isabelle Huppert might have displayed just the right ascetic severity for the character. As it is, Nixon brings an indrawn intensity to the role of this housebound visionary who is heard at one point commendng poetry as "my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all". Not the sort of person, then, with whom you're likely to nip out for a digestif (or even a Diet Coke). Keith Carradine in A Quiet PassionKeith Carradine, The stultifying family dynamics find Nixon's ever-determined scribe attempting to hold her own alongside a feckless and uncomprehending brother (Duncan Duff) and a stern-faced father (pictured above, sporting killer sideburns). Only Lavinia seems to have a handle on her sister as both aesthetician and human being. Such filial warmth as exists cannot prevent Emily's retreat from the world, but not before she is seen clinging to grammatical propriety like some lone survivor of a typographic Titanic.

First encountered in school-age solitude (and played by Emma Bell) before Nixon assumes the role, this Dickinson is always the brightest person in the room. That's a major reason why you can't help but feel she would have been unimpressed by the faux-Wildean wordplay of her great friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). In the end, one is drawn primarily to the rigorous beauty of the European locations that stand in for 19th-century rural Massachusetts and to the power of Nixon when she can drop having to act Emily as a person in favour of simply living with her language. At such moments, we're gloriously reminded of that quintessentially Dickinsonian carriage that held "not just Ourselves", so the poem tells us, "but Immortality".

Overleaf: watch the trailer for A Quiet Passion

Nixon's Emily is not the sort of person with whom you're likely to nip out for a digestif


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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