“Beauty is not caused. It is,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote — a truism not always applicable to the cinema of Terence Davies, which can work mightily hard toward its beauty, often to rapturous effect. This most refined of filmmakers appears to have come unstuck, however, with the story of Dickinson herself. His most mannered and least fulfilling work to date, “A Quiet Passion” boasts meticulous craft and ornate verbiage in abundance, but confines Cynthia Nixon’s melancholia-stricken performance as arguably America’s greatest poet in an emotional straitjacket of variously arch storytelling tones — of which a prolonged experiment with quippy, Whit Stillman-esque deadpan is the most unhappily surprising. An evident labor of love for its suddenly prolific helmer, this “Passion” project nonetheless registers as a missed opportunity; audience affection will range from quiet to inaudible.
It’s been 16 years, following his richly textured Edith Wharton adaptation “The House of Mirth,” since the eminently British Davies ventured across the pond in subject matter — even if this U.K.-Belgian co-production was largely shot outside Antwerp. Though the film, in keeping with its subject’s reclusive nature, is predominantly a chamber piece, the geographical disconnect is felt: There’s even a somewhat chateau-like ambience to the Dickinsons’ Massachusetts residence.
Yet across the miles, Davies’ affinity for Dickinson as an artist makes perfect sense: Her poetry and his filmmaking alike have a lyrical sensibility defiantly out of step with that of their presumptive peers, in her case emboldened by a firsthand feminist streak that contributed to relative obscurity in her lifetime. One scene in the film sees the tart-tongued Dickinson scandalizing polite company by dismissing Wadsworth’s epic “The Song of Hiawatha” as “gruel,” defending instead the “Yorkshire gloom” of the Bronte sisters: “If they wanted to be wholesome, I imagine they would crochet.” Not that Davies’ script, drawn from no specified sources, seeks to simplistically recharacterize Dickinson as a patriarchy-busting feminist heroine: Haunted by her lifelong romantic inexperience and perceived lack of physical beauty, she’s presented as a figure who at once upholds and upends the primitive gender politics of her era.
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The more tragic dimension of Davies’ portrait — which follows its subject, at the helmer’s characteristic leisure, from her college years at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary to her deathbed — is thus quite intelligently etched. What sets the film drastically off-balance is its contrastingly finicky impulse to paint Dickinson as one of the rapier wits of her generation. Dickinson’s astute humor is certainly evident in much of her poetry, but Davies has opted instead to convey it through dialogue. Much of the film’s midsection is given over to airless reams of run-on aphorisms, as Dickinson, her doting younger sister, Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), and her irreverent best friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), patrol the gardens, trading barbs and twirling parasols as they ponder social etiquette and gender imbalance.
Davies has manifold gifts, but intuitive comic direction may not be among them: His one-liners are so densely sequenced, and delivered with such narrow inflection by an uncertain-sounding cast, that one scarcely has time to notice how many of them mean very little at all. “To be shocked by a book you haven’t read is like going to Sodom and Gomorrah and being offended that neither is from Philadelphia,” trills Buffam, to general mirth, in a typically eccentric example. If Davies’ previous feature, last year’s ravishing but heavily starched farmland epic “Sunset Song” (still awaiting U.S. release), was earnest to a fault, this undeniably singular hybrid of screwball solemnity doesn’t seem the best alternative.
Needless to say, Dickinson’s own poetry trumps any such stilted scripting for wisdom and eloquence, though Davies resorts to it less often than viewers might expect. Her words are present mostly in occasional snatches of voiceover, sporadic exceptions including the diegetic reworking of her poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” as a whimsical greeting to her newborn nephew. Writing is a notoriously difficult calling to dramatize, and “A Quiet Passion” never catches Dickinson at it. That omission may be for the best, though structurally it limits the film to conventional biopic beats, most of them centered on Dickinson’s familial woes: She repeatedly locks horns with her unfeeling father (Keith Carradine) and condescending brother Austin (Duncan Duff), clinging to Lavinia’s steadfast understanding as she herself retreats into embittered, hermetic behavior.
Marriages, deaths and other calamities are checked off in dutiful order. The wisdom of covering Dickinson’s entire adult life, as opposed to a judiciously chosen and dramatically crucial passage thereof, is most sorely tested when the Battle of Gettysburg rolls around: Though understandably budget-strapped, Davies questionably elects to cover it with a kind of cinematic PowerPoint presentation of colorized photographs, adding insult to injury by closing the montage on a shot of an inaccurately over-spangled American flag.
Hot off a scorching, personal-best performance in Josh Mond’s “James White,” Nixon plays sensitively in tune with her director’s chosen mode of heightened, deliberate delivery, without ever quite approaching the wrenching internal chaos of such Davies heroines as Gillian Anderson in “The House of Mirth” and Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea.” One half-wishes she had traded roles with Ehle, who gives handily the film’s most bittersweet, subtly expressive turn as the long-suffering Lavinia, a woman who doggedly sees the good in people even where she smells none. Others in the ensemble are far less assured, particularly its male members: Saddled with possum-like wigs and over-emphatic makeup, Carradine and Duff veer toward stock villainy in their most heated exchanges with Nixon.
Reunited with “The Deep Blue Sea’s” cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, Davies frames and lights Dickinson’s anguish in typically fastidious fashion, frequently opting for bright Easter-egg hues that are cruelly juxtaposed with her internal sense of wintry desolation. Budgetary limitations lend the film’s production and costume design a hemmed-in feel that sometimes works to pleasingly dioramic effect: Particularly during the film’s symmetrically composed introductory scenes at the seminary, one wonders if Davies has been watching the work of Austrian formalist Jessica Hausner. If only he had found an equivalently evocative visual language for Dickinson’s verse: When her “Farewell” is read, at the most narratively obvious point for it to appear, the accompanying images are too prosaic to be moving, even as the words themselves tickle the tear ducts. By this point it’s Dickinson, not Davies, doing the emotional heavy lifting.