The life of the writer does not particularly lend itself to being dramatized on film. The solitary act of writing is not a very cinematic event, and to incorporate the written works themselves is a difficult and fraught task. A limp voiceover or spontaneous reading can easily feel obligatory or out of place. But A Quiet Passion manages to avoid these traps. The film covers the life of poet Emily Dickinson, from her first rebellious spat with evangelism at school to her inevitable death. And as far as biopics go, it is an anomaly. The film is arranged into little vignettes that can be best described as movements of sort; this musical metaphor is also apt for the way the film uses Dickinson’s poetry: interspersed through the film, read aloud by Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) and weaving in and out of the film like part of the soundtrack. Director Terence Davies in an interview rightfully noted, “The poems […] have to act as music.”
A Quiet Passion is appropriately a quiet film, tending towards moments of carefully orchestrated silence enhanced by the noises of the natural world: the crackle of a fire, the persistent chirping of a bird. When Nixon’s voice suddenly creeps in, hovering over the images like mist over water, it almost shocks. Yet the voiceover never feels extraneous; instead, it enhances the images on the screen. One sequence very early in the film demonstrates this especially well, a 360-degree pan around the living room where the Dickinson family is seated silently. The shot begins on young Emily’s face, lit by flickering gold firelight as she sits reading. She suddenly looks up from her book towards the left of the frame—and as she does the camera begins to move in that same direction, and we hear Nixon’s clear voice reading:
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The Will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die.
It is a short poem, like many of Dickinson’s, and subtly rhythmic; the consistent repetitions of “and then” move the reader through the poem along with the assonant sounds that make up the words of the poem (“Will of its Inquisitor,” “liberty to die”). Yet the rhythm only draws attention to the concision of the poem—the reader expects each “and then” to lead on and on towards an ending the poem makes inevitable.
The poem’s pairing with the long, slow take sharpens the poem’s intent and the sequence’s intent as well, making both come vividly alive. The poem deals with the progression of life towards death, so does the slow pan around the room. As Nixon reads “and then, to go to sleep” we see her aunt Elizabeth drowsing off in a close-up. The images and the sound seem to be in synchronicity at first—but since Nixon reads at a brisk pace, the poem ends by the time Elizabeth is at the outer edge of the frame. Nixon’s voice is gone, and all that remains is the faint noise of the cicadas outside and the fire inside, along with the ever-present ticking of a clock, a clock that begins to chime as the camera slowly glides by. The hour is up, and as each subsequent member of the family comes into frame—her siblings seated at a table in the background, the mother gazing impassively at the fire—we feel the camera’s gaze more than ever. The brevity of the poem and the brevity of the camera’s motion become exquisitely painful. When the camera finally returns to Emily’s face, her face is contorted into an expression of such fear and dread that the phrase “liberty to die” seems like an oxymoron; it is, after all, a liberty no one really wants yet we all come to accept. The poem will reach its end, the camera will come back around and find its resting place, and as we witness, Emily realizes this life must end too.
Dickinson’s life, as the film shows, was one that was marked by pain and loneliness; half of the movie does not even leave the walls of the family home. Yet Dickinson’s poetry rings throughout as a reminder that to reduce Emily Dickinson to a mere “sad spinster” would be ignoring an expansive interior life. When Emily first holds her newborn nephew, she spontaneously and tenderly breaks into a recitation of “I’m Nobody, who are you?”—the only time we hear Dickinson’s poetry recited diegetically. As she speaks to the child, the camera focuses on the amazed smiles of her sister and sister-in-law, their faces lit up by the rosy glow of the oil lamps. Her recitation is something shared, the interiority of the voiceover becoming an externalized moment of illumination for everyone in the room.
The film itself in a way is not unlike this moment of illumination. Few read Dickinson’s poetry in her lifetime, and even now that she has been canonized her work has a quality of dourness that hangs about it, the result of too many dull English classes perhaps. Dickinson, in her first letter to writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, famously asked: “Mr. Higginson, — Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” And Davies understands Dickinson’s words to be firmly alive, and that such words can only come from someone who is as alive as they are. A Quiet Passion animates Dickinson’s life and work, using one to illuminate the other just as the images and the words illuminate one another too. It feels right, then, that that film ends with the faces of the actresses who played her slowly dissolving into a photograph of the real Dickinson as we hear Nixon read for the final time a poem that aptly summarizes Dickinson’s poetry: “This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me.” Davies, in the end, has found his own way to write back.