Poet Emily Dickinson is often known for the tragedies of her life, be it her chronic illness or her melancholic depression as expressed through her unconventionally punctuated verse, but rarely is she thought of as funny. Writer and director Terence Davies really wants to bring that dimension of Ms. Dickinson to life in A Quiet Passion, a biopic that is less concerned with exploring the solely notorious aspects of Dickinson’s life than it is with portraying the often caricatured spinster as a well-rounded and very human person. In this, he succeeds to an astounding degree, even if some of the director’s eccentricities force the production to a slog for parts of its latter half.
Cynthia Nixon delivers a powerhouse performance as Emily Dickinson, a woman who actively resists the pressures of evangelical Christianity and patriarchal expectation while working on little-acknowledged art in the dark hours of night. The majority of the drama is restricted to the Dickinson estate, as she cares for her depressive mother (Joanna Bacon), copes with her father’s (Keith Carradine) growing religiosity, enjoys her sister’s (Jennifer Ehle) patient companionship, and tolerates her brother’s (Duncan Duff) increasingly lax ethical standards. In the background, the turmoil of the American Civil War tears the country apart, which parallels the growing divisions in the Dickinson household over the decades.
Despite those dark circumstances, A Quiet Passion‘s first half is remarkably funny, relying on acerbic wit and understated reactions to carry many early scenes on constant inducements of laughter. The wordplay and banter is inspired both in its writing and in its delivery, with Nixon in particular offering some of the choicest lines for the maximum bittersweet effect. But what’s particularly clever about this humorous discourse is that it’s not only comic for its own sake, but it also acts as a demonstration of how humor is a masking influence for depression. Dickinson was prone to depression from a young age, which was exacerbated by a denial to the kinds of independence and autonomy she craved, but one would never know if they just took her conversations with friends and family at face value.
This makes it a somewhat jarring experience when, for the film’s latter half, Davies opts to pull the curtain back and show the tragedy of Dickinson’s later years without much, if any, comedic buffer. This tonal shift serves as an excellent demonstration of how ingrained Dickinson’s depression was, but it also highlights some aggravating trends in Davies’s direction. Scenes in the Dickinson household feel more and more staged, less like a naturally told story than a protracted montage of the dramas and arguments that engulfed their lives during Emily’s final years, punctuated by extended scenes that take a long time to symbolically convey what in actuality is a very simple message. There is also an attempt to use Dickinson’s poetry as a contextualizing narration to tie key scenes together across time, but in practice it comes across as too literal and trivializing.
Still, A Quiet Passion is a fantastic exploration of depression and oppression in a context and tone which are not often explored. Sure, some of Terence Davies’s directorial ticks may turn casual viewers off, as might the palpable shift in tone at the film’s midpoint, but that shift is entirely the point to the comic joy found in early scenes. Emily Dickinson’s life was by no means a comedy, but maybe by looking at her more humorous side we can understand the depths of the emotional pain she attempted to mask.