'A Quiet Passion' Review: Cynthia Nixon Shines as Emily Dickinson

Director Terence Davies dodges biopic cliches in his subversive, sensitive portrait of the great American poet

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie Dickinson in 'A Quiet Passion,' from director Terrence Davies. Credit: Johan Voets

The Furious 8 crowd is advised to run for the hills. Terence Davies is a poet of cinema, of images, sounds and rhythms that define a life. Davies films move at a pace demanded by the material, not fidgety audiences. His remarkable debut features – 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives and 1992's The Long Day Closes – are drawn from his own growing up experiences as the youngest of 10 children in a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool. To deal with an abusive father, he escaped into music and movies.

Just one reason that Davies is the right choice for A Quiet Passion, a gentle yet subversively fierce and funny look at the life and art of the great American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) that scrupulously dodges biopic clichés. Davies is a kindred spirit with the reclusive Dickinson, who lived mostly in isolation in Amherst, Massachusetts, finding solace in her family and in writing the 1,800 poems that were rarely published or praised during her lifetime.

Cynthia Nixon is simply magnificent as Dickinson, finding the sharp wit and searching mind of a woman out of step with the codes and formalities of her time. Young Emily, played by a lively Emma Bell, proved to be quite a handful at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, challenging the evangelical edicts of those in charge. She's delighted when her lawyer father Edward (a very fine Keith Carradine) arrives with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle, superb) to sweep her back to Amherst where her poetry and freethinking is accepted if not exactly encouraged.

In a deft scene, Davies exhibits the Dickinson ménage posing for a series of photographs that show the passage of time. On home turf, Emily reveals her sympathy with other hell raisers, especially Vryling Buffon (Catherine Bailey), a contrarian whose blunt honesty is a tonic for Emily. There is a flirtation with the married Rev. Wadsworth (Eric Loren) that typically goes nowhere as Emily self-isolates so severely that she greets guests from the stairway outside her bedroom where she can see them but they can only hear her.

Nixon is a marvel at capturing Dickinson's voice, whether she's suffering fools ungladly or reading her genius poems in voiceover. Davies has always brought out the best in actresses. Think Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth and Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea. And his collaboration with Nixon resonates on the deepest level. Near the end, when ill health reduces Emily to agonizing pain, Nixon (recalling her landmark performance as mother battling cancer in 2015's James White) connects passionately with the fighting spirit of the poet who died of kidney failure at 55. 

Don't be deceived by the delicacy of Emily's 19th-century surroundings, beautifully captured by the gifted cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister. The portrait that Davies paints is of a woman in full, living not just in her words but in the agonizing spaces between them. That's why this film is such a remarkable achievement. As Dickinson wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." You'll also know it when you see A Quiet Passion. It's a beauty of a movie that touches the heart not through pushy sentiment but through the magnitude of its art.​