Imagine you’re a 20th century poet with the misfortune of being born in 1830. Imagine you’re a modernist writer at a time when nobody understands what modernism means, least of all yourself. Imagine the loneliness of speaking a language no one is yet equipped to understand.
Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion” imagines the life of Emily Dickinson in all its particulars and in a style that seems to have streamed directly from the mid-19th century. Long takes, visual tableaux, formal dialogue, and ecstasy struggling to free itself from beneath the starched surfaces of Amherst. If you’ve seen the films of Terence Davies before — yearning British memory plays like “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988), “The Long Day Closes” (1992), and “Sunset Song” (2015) — you may be prepared for this. It’s the approach of one artist taking the measure of the tragedy of another.
Which isn’t to say that “A Quiet Passion” isn’t delightful in its first hour, as the young Emily (Emma Bell) returns home from the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary thoroughly un-envangelized yet on fire with ideas and imagery. Through the wonderful visual device of a daguerreotype lap-dissolve, the Dickinson family ages a decade into Emily (Cynthia Nixon), her beloved older brother Austin (Duncan Duff), her loyal younger sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), a pious but broad-minded father (Keith Carradine), and a mother (Joanna Bacon) who today would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression.
These early sequences are often laugh-out-loud displays of Jane Austen-esque wit, Emily and her more socially adept friend Miss Buffam (Catherine Bailey) tweaking the sensibilities of dowager aunts and befuddled suitors. Yet for all her yearnings, Emily is almost spiritually bound to her family, even asking her father permission to write her poetry into the wee hours.
Two things to note. First, Nixon gives a controlled yet somehow epic performance as Dickinson ages from ardor to reclusiveness across the decades. The acting is just as much physical, Emily’s inner violence withheld while the exterior buckles under stress. A scene in which she dares to show some of her verse to a married reverend (Eric Loren) — a man for whom she has feelings she can barely express — holds on the actress’s face as the camera registers emotions warring within. In later sequences, Nixon risks our sympathy with an unflinching portrayal of Dickinson’s mania and mistreatment of those who loved her.
Did all this really happen? No one knows. Which brings us to the second point: “A Quiet Passion” is the work of a master craftsman whose interest has always been the ways outer reality frames and shapes our inner landscapes. Shot in the era’s natural light — candles, kerosene lamps, daylight slanting into low-ceilinged rooms — this feels like the closest we may ever come to a movie actually filmed in the mid-1800s. Early in “Passion,” a 360-degree pan around the Dickinson living room, the family members each in their books or conversation or handiwork, is a breathtaking panorama of an older, forgotten America. (A similar shot later on echoes the first, only with Emily now on the outside of the circle.)
As enrapturing as “A Quiet Passion” can be, it becomes rough sledding in the final acts. Bitter quarrels erupt among the siblings — Ehle gives off a glow as Lavinia, a gentler but more earthly spirit than her sister — as Emily’s outbursts grow more strident. The depictions of illness and death in the years before our modern medical advancements is true to the times and brutal to our softer sensitivities.
Personally, I think this long, cool insistence on looking makes “A Quiet Passion” the stronger experience, if a less comfortable one. No matter how you feel, we still get the poetry, stitched throughout the film and occasionally soaring above it like an uncaged bird: hard, far-seeing, and waiting for the day it will be understood.
A QUIET PASSION
Written and directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine. At Kendall Square. 125 minutes. PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images, brief suggestive material, inspired morbidity).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.