Proving that a fine filmmaker’s greatest asset can occasionally become their undoing, Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion” sees British national treasure Terence Davies overshoot his trademark sensitivity and deep feeling by quite some distance, to deliver an overweeningly precious misfire. A film composed almost entirely of women in corsets entering rooms in paroxysms of delight or agonies of despair, wearing expressions either beatifically radiant or stricken with desperation, with nothing in between, it’s an overwrought, stagey muddle that suggests that Davies, ever a-quiver on the extreme high end of the sensitivity meter anyway, has quivered right off it and plunged into the depths of bathos.
Starring Cynthia Nixon as the tragic, reclusive 19th century poet, Jennifer Ehle as her tirelessly devoted younger sister Vinny, and an oddly be-whiskered Keith Carradine as her beloved but uncomprehending father, to be fair, the film at least begins promisingly. In a surprisingly madcap Jane Austen-ish vein, Emily (played in her younger years by actress Emma Bell before a more querulous Nixon takes over) emerges as a spirited heroine with very particular and unconventional ideas about herself, and her relationship to God and the written word. But the fizziness of her youthful exchanges with a religious schoolmarm or her traditionalist aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) or her siblings (brother Austin is played by Duncan Duff with a very strange accent) starts to go flat when we realize that this is the overwritten, high-pitched, unnatural register that the entire film will unfold in. Even the initially welcome arrival of a saucy friend, played by Catherine Bailey beneath a permanently arched eyebrow and a twirling fringed parasol, becomes tedious quickly when there’s never any let-up in her pert, faux-scandalous observations.
This theatrical bent to the dialogue (to the point that it feels like Bailey, for example, frequently pauses to allow the laughter of an imagined audience to die down) is merciless, and so clearly en-un-ci-at-ed that it’s a little like being trapped in an ongoing elocution lesson. And it really starts to grate from the mid point or so, when Emily’s retreat from the world, occasioned partially by her impossible love for a married clergyman, finds the exchanges losing their saucy/pert/parasol-twirling vibe. Now Emily becomes more involved in her angst over her eternal soul or self-castigation over her plainness and unlovability, which results in to and fro that not only doesn’t sparkle, it makes no real sense, as when she huffily announces that “Familiarity breeds contempt” to which Vinny fires back “Perhaps contempt breeds familiarity!” What?
Dickinson was obviously a great poet with a beautifully precise command of the English language, as demonstrated in the voiced-over selections from her work. But that seems to suggest to Davies, who also wrote the script, that she never in her life, even in colloquial speech, spoke in anything but the most perfectly parsed complete sentences. The dialogue becomes an almost orgiastic homage to the prim power of the subjunctive mood: “Were I but…” “Had I only…” “Would that I could just…”. It is, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote, the kind of excessively correct English up with which it is difficult to put. Even Oscar Wilde must occasionally have said “Pass the salt,” though in the case of “A Quiet Passion” that would doubtless have been followed by “…or perhaps [pert twinkle, saucy pause] the salt passes you? [pause for laughter, twirl parasol].”
And ah me, would that the dialogue were all that went awry here! There are some exceptionally odd flourishes, like an ill-advised photo montage depicting the major battles of the Civil War, or the stony-faced daguerrotypes of the cast in their younger incarnations morphing — before our very eyes! — into the older cast members, like a Victorian era version of Michael Jackson‘s “Black or White” video. And more broadly still, Davies, in combination with “The Deep Blue Sea” DP Florian Hoffmeister, can’t even seem to find too many of his usual rich images amongst all these fusty interiors and flat close-ups. Even the fine performers are given no room, between the twin poles of joy and despair, to flesh out their characters, despite the fact that Nixon’s recent run of impressive indies has proven she’s more than capable, and Ehle is one of our favorite working actresses.
These problems are wounds, cuts and nicks in the film’s credibility, but the fatal observation is that all the telling-not-showing, actually tells us very little about Emily Dickinson. Aside from the Wikipedia-level facts of her life, like that she died of Bright’s disease (which is illustrated in the film by a couple of excruciatingly long, uncontrollable fits) and that her closeness to her family was both a source of contentment and a trial to her when they failed to measure up to her standards, we get nothing of Emily’s inner life, no glimpse of the place where all that extraordinary poetry came from. Of course, perhaps its there, but it’s just difficult to hear it above all the high-strung hubbub. If only “A Quiet Passion,” a title that suits almost any one of Terence Davies other films better than it does this one, had been a little quieter. [C-]