It’s tempting to treat Emily Dickinson as an uncrackable enigma. Her eccentricity is nearly as well known as her poetry and sometimes the two seem inseparable. A recluse who made a habit of rarely venturing from her family home, and later her room, it’s easy to think of her only as a sphinx-like issuer of cryptic, suggestive verse, a creature apart from humanity whose powers of observation came from the distance she kept from the world. The easiest way to portray her would be as a mystery rather than a flesh and blood woman with her own wants, desires, and disappointments.
For his latest film, A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies doesn’t take the easy way. The film’s Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon (after some early scenes in which The Walking Dead’s Emma Bell plays her in her youth) is a witty, cutting, and sensitive woman who’s very much engaged in the world, even if she’s content to keep to a limited orbit. In fact, the Dickinson of the earliest scenes seems far removed from the conventional sense of who she was. Trading bon mots with her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) and their free-thinking friend Vryling Wilder Buffum (Catherine Bailey), she seems at times to have stepped out of Whit Stillman’s recent Austen adaptation Love & Friendship.
It’s an unfamiliar tone for Davies, the Liverpool-born director who made his name via the remarkable, melancholy semi-autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes and whose more recent work as included the masterful literary adaptations The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea. (And last year’s Sunset Song didn’t work quite as well but contained some of the most beautiful images Davies has ever put to film.) It’s an intriguing departure both from how we traditionally think of Dickinson and from Davies’ usual habit creating visually stunning films defined by lyrical, emotionally wrenching passages. In its sunny, opening stretches, A Quiet Passion seems far removed from the usual sumptuous gloom of Davies’ past work.