Though set nearly 150 years ago, Terence Davies' exquisite Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion is vitally relevant, as it spans centuries to reveal an agile female intelligence and willful body unable to fit into this prejudiced world. The pleading desire for contentment and the strangling despair of disappointment lays upon the American poet, played briefly in her youth by Emily Bell and for the rest of the film by a magnificent Cynthia Nixon. Abutting a society that constrains so many possibilities for her gender, Dickinson weighs the world and finds it wanting for a pathway to a woman's fulfilled happiness.
Davies, as always mining the past for its reverberating, ailing souls and tragic social repression, finds in Emily Dickinson a subject for rigorous, almost austere inquiry. Conversations on the nature of religious dogma, God's touch and distance, marriage, family, artistic creation and more flush A Quiet Passion with a forceful, spiritual and sparring dialog akin to the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. In candlelit and sun-flooded interiors alike, coy intellectual banter within Dickinson's unusually intelligent family segues over time to hypocrisy, bitterness and dejection, as parents age and siblings grow into complex adults. (Dickinson's mother, played by Joanna Bacon, is practically afforded her own micro-film—and a very moving one—in honor and sorrow for the suffering of silent mothers.)
Though revealing its spare production resources in occasionally unforgiving ways, Davies' film is never short of fierce spirit and barely suppressed outrage at how such a talent, a person, and a soul could be so restrained and twisted by her time. Often sublime and carried by Nixon's performance, which blooms ever more yearning as Dickinson grows in isolation and ruthless interior self-inquiry, A Quiet Passion attains that rare balance of being an elegy without resignation. And while the the walls of her family home may come to define and restrict her place in the world, the film carries Dickinson's poetry as its outlet and its echo. The desperate, gasping death that befalls the poet in the end is a shriek that still can be heard today.