Critics' Pick

A Quiet Passion (PG-13)

Drama 125 min. April 14, 2017
By Melissa Anderson
In his compassionate and intelligent Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies honors his subject by remaining true to this observation by the poet herself: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations." Lucidly portrayed by Cynthia Nixon, Dickinson here is ever alert and ablaze, even in the writer's more anguished later decades, sustained by family, friends, and her own feverish mind. However circumscribed she was physically, Dickinson constantly exceeded boundaries.

Her contentious spirit is highlighted in the opening scene, as adolescent Emily (Emma Bell, who inhabits the role for the film's first 20 minutes) dares to defy her school's pious founder during an exercise meant to emphasize spiritual well-being: "I am not even awakened yet -- how can I even repent?" The response, at once brash and eminently reasonable, typifies Dickinson's exchanges with her interlocutors in A Quiet Passion; no convention or bit of received wisdom goes unchallenged.

But this most outspoken of young women, the middle of three children, was also an exceptionally devoted daughter and sibling. More than just a graceful chronicle of a singular figure, A Quiet Passion richly portrays the joys of kin, a camaraderie vivified by the astute performances of those who play the poet's nuclear brood, especially Keith Carradine as her father and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, whose inveterate cheer is sometimes eclipsed by her more saturnine sibling's moods. Davies's gift is for emphasizing the comfort and stimulation this cocooning provides Emily while also hinting at its potential for immurement, an eventuality realized in the last act, which covers the years when the writer rarely ventured past her bedroom doorway.
Terence Davies Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey Terence Davies Music Box Films

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