What was the deal with Emily Dickinson? America’s earliest known proto-emo pictured death as a gentleman caller (“Because I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me”), may have loved a girl named Susan, nursed a “terror” she “could tell to none”, exclusively wore white, spoke only to her sister, and – having been born too early to find some solace in the sounds of Pvris – hated the only known daguerreotype of herself.
If anyone can disentangle and disseminate the elusive Dickinson, then surely it's director Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth), another gifted poet of loneliness?
Davies' Dickinson – essayed as a pressure cooker by Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon – turns out to be his most miserable creation. Where the same film-maker found pathos in the ruinations of Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) and Hester Collyer (The Deep Blue Sea), the heroine of A Quiet Passion barely deems to step outside her own head, let alone her own home. (Watching this UK-Belgian coproduction's cheap-as-chips take on the Battle of Gettysburg, this may be for the best.)
Everything in the film – Florian Hoffmeister’s boxed cinematography, Toon Marien and Katha Seidman’s heavily draped sets, Catherine Marchand’s deep-breath corsets and taffeta gowns – conspires to articulate the cramped conditions of 19th-century spinsterhood.
Dickinson both resents and adheres to this prescribed existence. We're introduced to her as an incongruously lively girl (Emma Bell) who grows up to be a parasol-twirling wit, trading repartee and fan snaps with BFF Vryling (Catherine Bailey). This reinvention of the poet as a Whit Stillman character is fun, but as unconvincing as it is short-lived. Once Vryling is married, Dickinson is left to unsympathetic father (Keith Carradine), bullying brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and doting younger sister (Jennifer Ehle, brimming with pathos).
History records that Austin's mistress, Mabel Todd, was a champion of Dickinson's poems: here she is a source of jealousy and sexual frustration. Long before she takes to bed with the Bright's disease that would kill her in 1886, this Dickinson – an increasingly bitter old maid and a thundering wagon to boot – is seldom fun to be around.
Davies works Dickinson’s poetry into the script, resulting in violently bipolar shifts in mood and overly mannered dialogue. The writing is here, but the author is much harder to pinpoint.