Quiet Genius

Emily Dickinson comes alive in Terence Davies film

The title of A Quiet Passion is kind of lethal. “Quiet” is a risky word in the movie biz. The film’s pace is very deliberate—the first impression is of a game that’s gone into extra innings. When it’s over, it’s clear that eminent director Terence Davies, a master of moody, immersive cinema, needed time to contrast the body and soul of his subject.

Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) focuses on Emily Dickinson (Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon) as a lady of solitude and physical sufferings—”the Queen of Calvary,” as she called herself, tortured to an early grave at 55 by Bright’s disease. She was the middle daughter of a family of three in Amherst, Mass.

This anchoress saint of poetry only published a few poems in her lifetime, and hand-stitched her verse into little chapbooks. The apparent lightness of the lines disguise their tensile strength; her telegraphic bursts of words, connected by dashes, are as light as a feather and as dense as a $6 loaf of bread. Dickinson capitalizes nouns and ideas like a German, but she didn’t address herself to Great Themes, at least not in the 19th-century understanding of what great themes were.

What was seen of her poetry was dismissed, as by one editor, as “Childish, like nursery rhymes.” When a few admirers turn up, later in life, she treats them with arrogance. She’s particularly disapproving of a newspaper editor who repunctuated her verse for “clarity.”

Dickinson’s struggle against lifelong underestimation had its light side; she wasn’t always a hermit, and Davies shows her among friends and in her family circle as a sharp woman eager to defend herself. Sometimes wrenchingly sad, A Quiet Passion is Davies’ funniest film. The director of moving, solemn stories of the working class life seems freed by the idea of an unmarried woman who does as she pleases.

‘A Quiet Passion’ opens May 26 at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.