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It makes sense that a director as precise and as lyrical as Terence Davies would tackle the biography of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) and that the result, "A Quiet Passion," would be both gentle and intense.
Davies begins with Dickinson's younger days in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, when Emily (played at first by Emma Bell) wrestled with her Christian faith. She retreated to her family home in Amherst, Mass., where as an adult played sublimely by Cynthia Nixon she became a reclusive writer and poet.
Reclusive, but not lonely. Her family her kind father, Edward (Keith Carradine); quiet mother, Emily (Joanna Bacon); devoted sister, Lavinia a k a Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle); garrulous brother, Austin (Duncan Duff); and demure sister-in-law, Susan (Jodhi May) were a constant presence, and they had lively discussions about abolition, the Civil War and other topics. Davies also depicts a friendship with Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is Emily's intellectual equal but otherwise her opposite, vivacious and outgoing where Emily is shy and tentative.
With her father's permission, Emily wrote in the wee small hours, while everyone else was asleep. She was prolific, writing some 1,800 poems, but only a dozen were published during her lifetime. Many of them dealt with death and immortality, topics that obsessed her as she watched loved ones die and as she suffered a debilitating liver disease. Her obsession with death also froze her in place, seldom leaving her house or even her bedroom.
Davies who employed Dickinson's poetry in "Of Time and the City," his 2008 film about his native Liverpool saturates the movie with her words, as Nixon provides a translucent voiceover that lets the offbeat juxtaposition of words blossom. Davies' stately images offer a serene counterpoint to those verses. (One of his most beautiful sequences is a simple one, when the family members have portraits taken with an early-model camera, and in one gradual close-up Bell's face seamlessly morphs into Nixon's.)
Nixon, light-years away from the work in "Sex & the City" that made her famous, channels Dickinson's impatient wit, her prickly demeanor and her nagging doubts. Her stellar performance in "A Quiet Passion" is a fit match for Davies' astringent portrait of the great poet. Somewhere, one suspects, Emily would approve.
'A Quiet Passion'
A luminous biography of the poet Emily Dickinson, captured flawlessly by Cynthia Nixon.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, May 5.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material.
Running time • 125 minutes.