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Emily Dickinson Was a Rebel

And like the renowned poet, Terence Davies’s biopic ‘A Quiet Passion’ breaks the rules

(Music Box Films/Ringer illustration)
(Music Box Films/Ringer illustration)

Late in A Quiet Passion, Emily Dickinson receives a visitor at her Amherst, Massachusetts, home. It’s Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, the first publication (in the movie, anyway) to feature her poems. Hence her nervousness. Dickinson, as played by Cynthia Nixon, isn’t the kind of woman we imagine to be easily shook: She spends much of the movie fighting verbal battles and winning, and this moment will prove no exception. But to start, she’s wide-eyed and slow-moving, dressed in a white that can’t help but heighten her pallor. The fear doesn’t last long: Bowles opens his mouth. If the movie teaches us to depend on Dickinson for anything, it’s speaking her mind when men — and anyone else who opposes her, friend or foe — open their mouths.

"Sir," she says to Bowles, looming over him from atop a staircase, "you have altered some of my punctuation."

Bowles laughs it off. "What’s a hyphen here or a semicolon there?" he says. He was trying to give her sphinxlike poems more clarity for his readers. But obviousness, Dickinson points out, is not the same thing as clarity — and anyway, doesn’t matter, stop fucking with the poems! "The only person qualified to interfere with the poet’s work is the poet herself," says Dickinson, with more poise. "From anyone else it feels like an attack."

When Dickinson says attack, you know she means it. Ditto when she says, "The alteration of my punctuation marks is very hard to bear." To the contemporary ear, that sounds ridiculous. But Dickinson — both in real life and as depicted here — was a radical, exacting artist, one whose keen sense of detail and feeling proved vital to stretching the limits of the English language as her contemporaries understood it. More to the point, she was an artist who had a fraught relationship to her readership, small though it was as she lived, and vice versa. Bowles is, after all, the editor who responds to her early poems with a polite condescension based not merely on what Dickinson writes, but who she is. "The genuine classics of every language are the work of men, not women," he writes her in the movie. "Women, I fear, cannot create the permanent treasures of literature."

That’s the climate hovering in the background of A Quiet Passion, which, as written and directed by the great British director Terence Davies, is a movie that understands the many ways Dickinson hemmed herself in — and the equally vast ways she put herself forward. The Dickinson of A Quiet Passion is argumentative, sensitive, and, yes, passionate. She has a rapturous love of art, particularly of women’s expression: She loves the Brontës but (rightly) thinks Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s "Hiawatha" is a bore. Fiercest of all is her indefatigable skepticism of religion. The movie opens with her being declared a "no-hoper" — meaning there was no hope for her soul — during her Mount Holyoke days. "You are alone in your rebellion," her instructor says. Later, invoking this same lesson, her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), asks her to come to church, reminding her that her soul is no trivial matter. "I know," Dickinson says. "That’s why I’m so meticulous in guarding its independence."

Davies’s movie is largely concerned with that independence — of spirit, yes, but also of artistry. That explains its mishmash of complex, competing tones. This is not a movie that aims to understand Dickinson through a series of biographical bullet points. Davies prefers, instead, to have us observe Dickinson through a series of overlapping impressions. Each new scene feels like a glittering shard of experience that deviates from and complicates the last. One moment she’s breaking a plate in a fit of annoyance, the next she’s despairing over what a married reverend she’s taken a liking to thinks of her poems. Her world is small and vexing, but also grand and full of love. Nixon is fabulously sharp in the role. She understands the extent to which Dickinson’s frustrations with her environment — and with men, God, and herself — come out in her demeanor. Her performance wavers back and forth between Dickinson’s hot and cool temperaments with the irresistible intelligence familiar from Dickinson’s poems. "Oh, Emily," says her sister, Vinnie (a wonderful Jennifer Ehle), more than once, after a quarrel. "Why do you always act like this? Now there’ll be hostility for days."

Dickinson loves and is inseparable from her family. Continual debate and infighting only strengthens those bonds. She loves her friends, too, most especially Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a smart, chatty woman whose eventual marriage, and subsequent diminishing friendship with Emily, makes Dickinson realize just how isolated she is. There’s a funny scene late in the movie when a suitor, having read and loved Dickinson’s poetry, shows up with a hope of earning her attention. She doesn’t let him come past the foot of the stairs. She doesn’t even come down to greet him; she hovers out of view, at the door of her bedroom, when they talk. "I am best heard, not seen," she says. She keeps men at a distance. "As soon as they get too close," she explains to her sister, "I feel as if I am suffocating. I long for … something. But I am afraid of it."

Dickinson’s inner complications were, as the movie interprets them, constantly at odds. You would think a movie like this would demand to be all interiority, all the time, to make that case — not least because Dickinson famously lived much of her life as a recluse. She would seem to have existed in a vacuum; culture has certainly remembered her that way, supporting the illusion of a wildly private iconoclast whose form-breaking verse was so original it had to have been created in a vacuum. Yet Davies smartly allows history to imposes itself on the world of the movie in fascinating ways. The Civil War breaks out, for example, and, suddenly, this otherwise straightforward narrative lapses into a stunning series of period photographs that throw the film off its axis, as happens to citizens’ lives during war.

The movie is strangely porous in that way — a Davies trademark. He is known for his ability to use voice and image to weave dreamlike tapestries of thought and emotion whose logic is purely cinematic. That’s what characterizes his hallmark films, The Long Day Closes (1992) and Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Davies’s 21st-century work has seemed, on the surface, to be more direct. But even A Quiet Passion has its elements of subtle experimentation. Voice-overs of Cynthia Nixon orating Dickinson’s poems float in and out of the film, adhering gently to images of Dickinson thinking or writing, for example.

Those voice-overs are all we really get of Dickinson’s poetry. An exception is when Dickinson holds her brother Austin’s newborn child for the first time and, suddenly, as if improvised, launches into what would in real life become one of her most famous poems: "I’m Nobody! Who Are You?" It’s a poem you might otherwise associate with a sense of public rejection. "How dreary — to be — Somebody!" Dickinson writes. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit once featured a victim of assault reciting the poem as a sign of her psychological instability. In A Quiet Passion, however, Dickinson is all smiles as she recites it; it’s an outpouring of affection, a token of bonding with a child whose utter smallness is reminiscent of what Dickinson feels is her place in the world.

She’s full of surprises, in other words, and so is the movie. A Quiet Passion won’t be everyone’s speed. Davies doesn’t break the rules of biopics (or, for that matter, period pictures) so much as he operates independently of them, neither bowing to the genre’s usual dramatic satisfactions nor really showing much awareness of them. It’s a film made in the image of Dickinson and her poetry, in other words: starkly original, but without much show of fuss. "Poems are my only solace for the eternity which surrounds us all," she says at one point to a conservative older relative. Davies, an iconoclast in his own way, understands that notion — and he understands how to make art that brings it to life.