A Quiet Passion (2017)
This film is ostentatious. Or maybe Austen-tatious might be the better use. A headstrong woman contradicts the habits of the day to rise above the subservience of her gender. Terence Davies has all the pristine cultural sensibilities of an Emma Thompson adaptation, and this one just so happens to be about Emily Dickinson. Starting in her expulsion from compaulsary evangelism through cotillion seasons spent snarking on the couch into the Civil War and then an unexpected shift into melodramatics as the family begins to wither. Traditional in the longform storytelling for a biopic, A Quiet Passion contains the hearty of laughs of Love & Friendship and the personal touch of determined artists.
Cynthia Nixon is nothing short of spectacular. In her most personal role, she imbodies Emily Dickinson. Beyond the makeup, Nixon possesses personality in her character, all the hushed evenings spent writing, tired by the surrounding zealot clones she’s dained to share in all the social graces of an uncomfortable polka. The lines around her mouth can speak a completely different language than her eyes. A provocateur for her time, Dickinson took no benefit in being married off, though her self-reflections demonstrate no confidence in her fitness as a wife of the time. Her wit is stellar (and boy do I wish I would have seen her in W;t); biting retorts to the cajoling to join the rest of society. “There’s bullying, and there’s coercion,“ she states, smiling through the absurdity. Her love was poetry and her family, but that did not seem enough to those in society. Eventually drifting into voluntary spinsterhood, Nixon lays into the melodramatics, though not unfitting for the tone of the film, the shift was fast and a bit unsettling. Her refusal to accept a station and bow to the patriarchy makes her a powerful heroine for a year filled with men being awful.
Nixon is not the sole star in the film. Annette Badland as Emily’s severe Aunt Elizabeth helps to set the tone before Nixon’s older Emily arrives. Prim with pauses of haughty brilliance, her sharp humor is cutting and pitiable. At a concert, her nose is high in the air stating, “English, thank heaven, is not a language that can be sung,” leading to the first of many pauses along the way. Jennifer Ehle as Emily’s sister Vinnie is eager and less maudlin as they age. Equally suspect of a woman’s place in Civil War era America, Ehle embodies a natural chemistry with Nixon, as if they had uncomfortable teas for years. Pouring tea for a wedded pastor and his staunch wife, her indelicate technique barely allows her to contain her own laughter (click clank “More water?” click clank).
The film is Incredibly personal. Emily explores her passion for writing, barely acknowledged by a world that would not harold her until after her death. The slow, paced dialogue allows the actors the quiet grace their “duty” permits while maintaining the satire in the story. Cynthia Nixon is joyous and obstinate, and so many fine things that brighten Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I was incredibly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film, but that’s likely because it has THE WORST TRAILER OF THE YEAR! The overdramatics pushed me away from the film, but that’s because the hilarious plate breaking was placed as a angry expression. Each voice over claimed dull narrative, but what I found was a hilarious, personal look into a spirited artist’s life. It can be streamed free on Amazon Prime now.