Young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) marked herself out as a rebel from a tender age, sceptical about the place of God in the world when it seemed He was set to punish you no matter how you behaved, be that in this life or the next. When she left school she returned home to live with her father (Keith Carradine) and slowly ailing mother (Joanna Bacon), and there she more or less stayed for the rest of her life, along with her sister (Jennifer Ehle) and brother (Duncan Duff) in Massachusetts, a notably puritan region of the United States in the nineteenth century when she was alive. But though she was an obscure figure then, she had a passion for poetry, and if hardly any of it was published in her lifetime, she carried on writing nonetheless...
Emily Dickinson was one of the most important of American poets, you don't need me to tell you that, but one wonders how much she was read come the twenty-first century, despite the praise she still receives and the stature her work enjoys. You might be able to say that of almost every great poet, but the hook to grab the potential reader was always that she was entirely unrecognised when she was living, and it was merely by chance her efforts were found and published after she had died: that loneliness we can see in her life offset by her rich inner existence that few would have guessed at if she had not expressed herself in such a manner. Yet that melancholy that nobody told her all this remained.
This rendered director Terence Davies' endeavours to drum up more interest in actually reading Dickinson all the more important, and it was obvious he saw, as with most of his protagonists, much of his own experiences in her which was why he was able to dedicate himself to relating this biopic. They both pursued labours of love with little appreciation from the public at large, for example, though Davies was at least still with us when he was garlanded with favourable reviews and reactions so one presumes that would have encouraged him to continue on this highly arty and personal path. The trouble largely arrived when this film came across as difficult and uncompromising, an act of unintentional self-sabotage with even Dickinson fans querying her depiction.
This was problematic if you loved cinema as much as Davies did, for you wanted his work to be enjoyed by the widest audience possible, yet the fact remained he was delivering his tales to a niche, and in all honesty, however painfully sincere he was, there was no way A Quiet Passion was going to be anything but a passion for the type of person who continued to read its subject's poetry, or any poetry at all, really. Davies always came across as immensely sympathetic when discussing his interests, to the point that his enthusiasm could be mistaken for pretension, which was why it was a letdown to report his film was mannered when it was not wallowing in Emily's darkest days, as if it could hardly wait to reach the point when she turned recluse and hit her long decline in health, both mental and physical.
That acknowledged, there were lighter moments in the first hour to contrast with this depressing winding down of a creative life thwarted until it was too late to be of any benefit to the artist, mostly taking the form of archly witty pronouncements from Emily and her waspish good friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), but you would have to be especially indulgent of this unconsciously artificial humour to raise so much as a titter at them. Indeed, you could envisage the movie's attempts at jokes and jollity as grating to anyone not on its rarefied wavelength, not that the plunging into the depths of despair after Emily's father passes away would be any more of a tonic. You can see Davies had a point when he portrayed her, now played by Cynthia Nixon, as a difficult woman driving those about her to distraction with her stubborn and intractable nature, but she was as much fun to watch as she would have been to be around, turning what was determined to avoid the pitfalls of so-called heritage cinema into an endurance test for all but the most dedicated. The director's trademarks were there, especially the carefully crafted visuals and the sense that fulfilment was so frustratingly outwith the characters' grasp, but it was blatantly for a tiny audience to appreciate.