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'A Quiet Passion' takes poetry to heart

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A Quiet Passion

Cynthia Nixon (left) and Jennifer Ehle in "A Quiet Passion." Music Box Films

Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) is much too spirited to take seriously the dour pronouncements of her headmistress at Mount Holyoke, or to fit in with the college’s agenda of turning out proper young women. She’s much too rebellious and imaginative, and if she were a man she’d be on the cusp of endless possibilities.

But 19th-century America is no place for a woman, regardless of her talents. With most professions dominated by men, Dickinson (now played by Cynthia Nixon) is pretty much limited to finding a husband or living under her father’s roof in Amherst, Mass. She opts for the latter, which allows her to pursue her true passion — to be a poet.

Her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), is tolerant of her aspirations but hopeful that she’ll ultimately conform to the norms of society. Dickinson has a stronger bond with her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), who loves her unconditionally despite her insecurities.

And indeed, Dickinson is insecure — about her looks and her prospects for marriage, but more importantly about her chances of being taken seriously as a poet.

Her writing is precious to her — down to the punctuation marks — and one of the few things over which she has complete control.

“A Quiet Passion” is more of a costume drama than a biopic — less concerned with Dickinson’s inner life as an artist than with how she’s affected by the conservatism of her times. The reasons behind her interest in becoming a poet in the first place are unexplored.

Even so, the film is an intriguing portrait of an American icon. Working from his own screenplay, British director Terence Davies (“Distant Voices, Still Lives”) brings a stately grace to the proceedings. And he benefits mightily from a superb cast.

Perhaps best known for the HBO series “Sex and the City,” Nixon deftly balances wit and melancholy. And Ehle is empathy personified.

This is a film of subtle beauty.

What “A Quiet Passion” • Three stars out of four • Run time 2:06 • Rating PG-13 • Content Thematic elements, disturbing images and suggestive material

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