“A Quiet Passion,” the first full-fledged biopic of acclaimed poet Emily Dickinson, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center Friday, May 5. One of her best-known poems, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” reflects the reclusive nature of Ms. Dickinson, played with convincing wit and acerbic insight by Cynthia Nixon.
Emily was a lifelong resident of Amherst, and her world was almost entirely confined to the family homestead — now the Emily Dickinson Museum — and her immediate family. Terence Davies’ film opens with the poet at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she spent less than a year before apparently being expelled for her heterodox religious views. An avid gardener, Emily wanders the Dickinson property with Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend of her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle, another of the movie’s bright lights). Emily’s lively repartee with Vryling is sometimes a challenge to follow, and Vryling heads into marriage, she disappears from the film.
Davies picks and chooses among the elements of Emily’s life to showcase, not always accurately, but his portrait of her remains vivid, involving, and beautifully photographed. Nixon recites sections of Emily’s poems in voiceovers, giving viewers a sense of what has made her such an important American poet. Her closest relationship was with her sister, followed by that with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and her parents, the lawyer Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) and Emily Norcross Dickinson (Joanna Bacon).
Mr. Dickinson appears as a traditionally patriarchal Victorian figure. As independent as Emily was in many ways, she nevertheless asks her father for permission to stay up late writing poetry. The film portrays Emily’s mother as a depressive, when in fact she was more of an invalid, and not particularly warm toward her daughter. The death of friends, many of whom were men she corresponded with, deeply affected Emily, and her poetry reflects a preoccupation with death. Her father’s death comes first in the movie, followed by her mother’s decline and death, depicted with grim accuracy — as is the case later when Emily dies.
Gradually she begins to withdraw to her upstairs bedroom, spending her time writing and avoiding contact even with the people who come to visit her. Attached to her brother’s wife, Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), who supports her poetic endeavors, Emily is depicted as angrily confronting Austin when he carries on an affair with another woman. Also graphically presented are Emily’s illnesses, suspected epilepsy and Bright’s disease.
The poet is said to have produced 1,800 poems; less than a dozen of them were ever published, and those heavily edited. Most of the unpublished ones she transcribed into booklets, and the movie shows her sewing them together. It wasn’t until after her death that Vinnie discovered the cache of unpublished poems and worked to get them published.
Davies takes his own particular approach to Emily’s life in “A Quiet Passion,” but he has nevertheless created a fine and involving film.
Information and tickets for this and other films playing at the Film Center are available at mvfilmsociety.com.