Come taste a biopic never brewed
From Terrance Davies’ scrawl
Never did Sex and the City give
Miss Nixon such fine lingual!
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Though her genius would not gain recognition until after her death, Emily Dickinson is now considered one of the most important poets of the 19th century. Eccentric and forever defiant of the cultural norms of the period, she is removed from her Seminary as a young schoolgirl (Emma Bell) and returned to her family home in Amherst. In her middle age (Cynthia Nixon), she finds a strong passion in writing poetry, however, by her later life she becomes a recluse; toxic to anyone who dares disturb her as both her mental and physical health deteriorate significantly.
Writer/director Terrence Davies (Sunset Song) takes a probing, detailed look at the life, work and relationships of the beloved poet in A Quiet Passion. It’s girthy stuff, delving deep into the remote recesses of Dickinson’s troubled life that most biopics wouldn’t dare brave. Never once does it dumb down the eloquence or shy away from the suffering that came with living in this age.
But in being such a dense portrayal lies its main issue – inaccessibility. For anyone not well versed in Dickinson’s lyricisms or the convoluted high-class talk of the time period, this is a long and difficult slog, with only a few moments of lighter whimsy. A few early scenes in which Emily playfully banters with her siblings and a snarky teacher are genuinely funny, and there’s a sense that this could have been another giddily enjoyable episode of Victorian-era comedic delights.
Love & Friendship this is not, though. Smiles quickly fade as light-heartedness is soon replaced by sombre melodrama. Consistent melancholy hangs oppressively in the air, eventually feeling like a real mood-killer.
It doesn’t help that Emily, though gifted as she is, becomes massively unpleasant and incredibly difficult to warm to, and that much of the turmoil she faces is a result of her own decisions to isolate herself and act acidic towards the people who only wish her well. It’s unlike anything you’d expect from Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, who is truly outstanding in the role, and pins down the tongue-twisting dialogue and emotional anguish with soul-baring perfection.
With a somewhat stale colour palette to the cinematography too, there’s very little glamour in Terrence Davies’ gloomy painting of one of the most creative and distinguished women of American history. That said, there’s never been such a meticulous and exhaustive look at the life of Emily Dickinson before, and it’s unlikely there ever will be one so tenacious and well-performed again. Dickinson fans and period drama aficionados are in for an absolute treat; to everyone else, approach with caution.
A Quiet Passion is available in Australian cinemas from June 22
Image courtesy of Palace Films