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‘A Quiet Passion’ Review: Cynthia Nixon Overcomes 19th Century Prose

Terence Davies’s biopic on Emily Dickinson offers visual rapture, while the dialogue tends to trip up the talented ensemble cast

The poet Emily Dickinson lived by necessity in a world of her own, and the director Terence Davies tries to capture the strict limits and enclosure of that world in “A Quiet Passion,” a film that seeks to re-create a way of speaking among 19th century aesthetes. The degree of difficulty here is steep, and Davies has not been entirely successful in making Dickinson’s milieu come to full and convincing life.

Davies has proven himself a master when it comes to the depiction of childhood and solitude, particularly in “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” which treat his own youth in poetically elliptical terms and use popular songs from the 1950s as cues for memory and reflection. In recent years Davies has focused on period pieces that revolve around women like “The House of Mirth,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Sunset Song,” and now this meditation on Dickinson.

Davies has fans who will rapturously receive anything he cares to direct, and surely these fans will go into ecstasies over a show-stopping set piece in “A Quiet Passion” that is bound to cause much comment. Davies begins his film with younger actors playing Dickinson (Emma Bell), her sister Vinnie (Rose Williams), and her brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright). He sets up the atmosphere and strictures of the Dickinson household, which is presided over by a father (Keith Carradine) who rules more by subtle manipulations than by outright tyranny. The young Emily is somewhat rebellious yet always held in check by others.

Movies so often have trouble with the passage of time, particularly when young actors give way to older actors playing the same role at a later period of life; it’s so hard to get an exact match and to feel as if we are seeing the same person. But Davies works a miracle with this challenge in “A Quiet Passion.” He trains his camera on Carradine’s father and then on young Austin, young Vinnie, and young Emily as if they are posing for an old-fashioned photograph that necessitates sitting still for a long time.

Gradually, through whatever technical process Davies chose to use here, the young people visually morph into older versions of the characters played by different actors as the camera moves closer to them and music on the soundtrack underscores the passage of time. And we really do seem to watch the process of aging happening right in front of us.

This short sequence is so overwhelming that it is likely to be the main moment (alongside one toward the end) that is remembered about “A Quiet Passion.” Unfortunately, there are problems in many of the scenes before and after this cinematic feat that have more to do with faulty execution rather than failure of intention. Davies himself has written the screenplay, which is a very risky attempt to capture a way of relating and talking in the 1860s and 1870s in Amherst, Mass., among people like the older Emily (Cynthia Nixon), who is torn between being a Puritan and being a free spirit.

Dickinson has a friend in this movie named Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) whose every utterance seems to come with an “aren’t I daring?” tag attached. Bailey rattles off pages and pages of arch lines here in rhythms that always sound infuriatingly off. You’d have to go as far back as Cybill Shepherd in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller” to find a performance so verbal and so pleased with itself and yet so totally cut off from any recognizable behavior or reality. Davies has written very heightened dialogue for “A Quiet Passion,” and so this places specific demands on his actors, some of whom badly fail to give it just the right note of intellectual playfulness.

To be fair, even Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, who plays the older version of Emily’s sister Vinnie, sometimes have trouble with Davies’s ornate dialogue. But Nixon is so determined to get to the heart of this great poet that she does eventually reach it toward the end of “A Quiet Passion.” There comes a time when Emily does not want to leave her room anymore, and she suffers from various ailments. It is in the depiction of Dickinson’s physical pain that both Davies and Nixon finally reach the communion with their subject toward which they have been so strenuously laboring.

Nixon has a scene in the last section of “A Quiet Passion” where Dickinson is viciously assailed by illness. Davies frames her in light that molds her face as she screams in agony, her mouth open in static disbelief until what we are seeing seems to be not a woman dying in her bed but a soul in agony. It is this scene, and the scene where the characters age, that will be remembered from “A Quiet Passion” when all its other issues with tone and performance recede into the background of memory.