A Quiet Passion paints a richly detailed portrait of poet Emily Dickinson

Emma Bell as the young Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
Damon Smith

BORN and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent most of her adulthood and died at the age of 55 in 1886 from Bright's disease, poet Emily Dickinson evaded the grubby fingers of fame in her reclusive lifetime.

A heavily edited first collection of her poetry emerged four years after her death and it was a further 65 years before her complete works were published, solidifying her status as one of the most important American writers of the 19th century.

Liverpudlian writer-director Terence Davies clearly feels a deep affinity with Dickinson and his labour of love, A Quiet Passion, paints a richly detailed portrait of a misunderstood woman. His script appropriates some of Emily's own words, but is a subjective fictional account that captures both his subject's solemnity and her caustic wit, like her throwaway barb about hypocrisy – "In America, we cherish it" – or her withering assessment of her chances of finding a husband: "I am a kangaroo amongst the beauties. Let us hope the man who courts me will have an interest in zoology."

The film follows young Emily (Emma Bell) from her time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her later years (now played by Cynthia Nixon), when she writes her poetry late at night with the blessing of her pious father, Edward (Keith Carradine).

In early scenes, Emily's reluctance to slavishly follow teachings – her soul is her own, not God's – prickle her educators.

"You are alone in your rebellion," warns a teacher.

She returns home less than a year into her studies and repeatedly clashes with her father, a prominent politician, who stridently imposes his will on his children. He does agree, however, that Emily can write verse behind closed doors in the dead of night and she is published anonymously in the Springfield Republican.

Supported by her doting sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and frequently visited by their friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), Emily settles into an almost hermetic existence at the family home, where she observes the minutiae of society life and passes judgment on the work of the Brontes.

"If they wanted to be wholesome, I imagine they would crochet," quips Emily.

While her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) embarks on an adulterous affair with Mabel Todd (Noemie Schellens), Emily remains alone and aloof, untouched by Cupid's arrow.

A Quiet Passion is a dense and exceedingly wordy tribute to a trailblazer at odds with the prevailing moods of the era.

Nixon's mannered, yet emotionally layered performance is among her best work, embracing all of her subject's foibles and flaws as she pours herself on to the page. Ehle brings warmth and boundless optimism to her sibling, who appreciates the goodness and compassion in Emily even when the writer cannot see it herself.

A QUIET PASSION (12A, 125 mins) Drama/Romance. Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Jodhi May, Noemie Schellens, Emma Bell. Director: Terence Davies

RATING: 7/10

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