A poet’s life

Emily Dickinson biopic a brilliant period piece

Opens Friday, May 26. Starring Cynthia Nixon, Emma Bell, Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff. Directed by Terence Davies. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG-13.
Rated 5.0

A Quiet Passion is a richly textured drama and period piece about the life and character of the great 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is somber, low-key and brilliant, and its casual disregard for the routines of the conventionally entertaining biopic has much to do with some of its most rewarding qualities.

Emily is, of course, the central figure in all this, but writer-director Terence Davies keeps the mysteries and paradoxes and imponderables of the poet’s character in the foreground throughout. Cynthia Nixon’s performance as the adult Emily is no star turn, but it offers a fully convincing picture of a woman who is, all at once, solitary, visionary, wounded, indomitable, haunted. (Emma Bell, who plays young Emily, does a nice job of evoking those qualities in more incipient form.)

While Emily’s career as a writer naturally provides a key narrative thread here, Davies organizes much of the film around an array of visits, meetings, celebrations, family gatherings, etc. The Dickinson household is far and away the dominant setting, and the poet’s parents, brother and sister, and assorted other relatives emerge as indelible figures in what becomes the portrait of a family and of social and cultural life in mid-19th century New England.

The film opens with a school graduation scene in which a fiercely puritanical headmistress brands the unapologetically nonconformist Emily as a “no hoper.” Later, a domineering pastor will come into conflict on religious matters with Emily’s father (Keith Carradine) and she will defy the same pastor even as her father relents.

Religion, gender and social dominance are issues throughout, with Emily’s robustly snooty Aunt Elizabeth (a semi-Falstaffian Annette Badland) serving as a raucously presumptuous female counterpart to several paternalistic male characters. Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), is part of the latter pattern in relation to Emily, but all three siblings (including sister “Vinnie”) take witty pleasure in irreverent wisecracks that puncture the pretensions of Aunt Elizabeth.

Vinnie (warmly played by Jennifer Ehle) is the closest the film comes to having a conventionally sympathetic character, but she is just one of several fresh-minded female foils for the strikingly “rigorous” Emily. Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) marries Austin but clearly prefers the company of his sisters. Mabel Loomis Todd (Noémie Schellens) is Austin’s “artistic” mistress, until Emily intervenes. And best of all, there is Miss Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), rebellious, articulate, wildly funny, and pragmatically astute on social matters.

All four of those younger women bring out aspects of Emily’s character that might otherwise go unnoticed. But there is also the Dickinson children’s mother, who is much revered by Emily in particular but rarely descends from the “Olympus” of her top-story room in the Dickinson mansion.

Not the least of the film’s strengths and pleasures is that it creates its own distinctive pacing, nicely attuned to the subject matter and enchantingly immersed in what feels rather like the time and pace of an era other than our own.