One of the year’s most quietly devastating performances can be found in Terence Davies’ immaculately rendered portrait of poet Emily Dickinson. That is, it’s quiet until the moment Emily (played with a fierce, undeniable intelligence by Cynthia Nixon) releases the emotions she’s kept pent up inside her. Cloistered as she is (she’s introduced at a strict religious boarding school, and even when she contrives to be sent home, she very rarely goes out), the Emily of A Quiet Passion is eager to make her mark on the world, if only the world were ready to accept her. (The literary establishment most definitely isn’t.)
Unlike some artist biopics, which pay scant attention to the actual work that makes them worthy of the treatment, A Quiet Passion is punctuated by examples of Dickinson’s poetry, a wise move on Davies’ part. The same goes for his casting of the supporting roles, with Keith Carradine in particular in good form as Emily’s uptight father and Joanna Bacon as her infirm mother, whose social isolation prefigures hers. Since Emily’s world is progressively constricted to the point where she only interacts with her own family, that’s one way to make sure her lacerations cut deep.
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