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'A Quiet Passion' is the difficult telling of Emily Dickinson's life

There is a moment in Terence Davies' "A Quiet Passion" that absolutely stunned me and will stay with me. I don't think it was meant to--not that way, anyway. But then, this is a movie that ends four or five times before it does and is, by no means, artfully precise about the life story it's telling. But that's the reason that scene  hit me so hard that it's likely to remain with me long after I've forgotten a lot else.

It happens in the first 15 minutes, which is something less than optimal for such a scene. We are being shown, in abbreviated form, the transition of poet Emily Dickinson from rebellious red-haired teenager to a young woman in full understanding of the amount of social constriction and spiritual aridity in the culture surrounding her. When we first see Emma Bell, as young Emily, morph into Cynthia Nixon, the expression on Dickinson's maturing face is severe angst. It is that sudden awareness which is the context for her poetic genius.

But it is the music Terence Davies has brilliantly chosen for the soundtrack at that moment that hit me the hardest--Charles Ives' "Decoration Day," whose elegiac dissonance is a perfect musical analogue to the mature despair a young brilliant woman in Amherst, Mass. might feel in America's sexually oppressive 19th century.

This is a difficult story to tell. And that difficulty shows all through the film. Davies is not exactly a tight narrator in his films. This is not, in any case, the Emily Dickinson you have may have learned about as a pubescent school kid. Nor is it the thorny, endearing Dickinson tidily encountered in the one-performer play "The Belle of Amherst" in which Julie Harris toured America for many years in a production directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, whose reputation you undoubtedly know from his flamboyance on TV game shows.

This is the tale of a brilliantly unconventional writer, a major New England rebel and proto-feminist from the moment she first eschewed Mt. Holyoke's ideas about God and belief to the angry older woman suffering from Bright's Disease and the contemplation of her own bitterness and unhappiness.

Americans are not always good about teaching kids about our greatest poets. There are very good reasons why, on the most minimal levels, the poems of Dickinson and Robert Frost are taught to pubescents. They are, on the most basic levels, clear and simple and digestible. The eccentric "Belle of Amherst" can be fashioned into a kind of perfect spinster artist--solitary, reclusive, creating very radical art in secret as assiduously as Charles Ives.

Which is true as far as it goes but doesn't go more than a few inches toward the much more complicated artist she was in life. That's the story that Davies tries to tell here and, in Nixon (of "Sex and the City" fame), he has a formidable actress to get her across.

This Dickinson, ironically calls herself a "no-hoper" for the life of married propriety surrounding her. She writes poetry into the wee hours (after getting Daddy's permission) and couldn't care less that everyone tells her that women "cannot create the permanent treasures of literature."

In its first third, Davies is pitilessly aphoristic in his dialogue, which gives things a good deal of snap, crackle and pop until you weary a little of people constantly saying things like "going to church is like going to Boston. The only pleasure is coming home." Most of those lines come from one of Dickinson's liberated friends Miss Buffum. ("Don't do anything against God," warns Emily sarcastically when they say goodbye one day. "I'll stop yodeling then," answers her impossibly witty friend.) That's a good thing because any familiarity with Dickinson's verse would render that a serious misreading of what we know.

But then, when the movie tries to seamlessly put her work in context, it's clumsy there, too. Whatever actually happened, Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody/Who Are You?" is awfully cutesy when you turn it into the poet's first reaction to her brother's infant newborn. She is totally disinterested in marriage, even as a possibility ("as soon as they get too close I feel as if I'm suffocating...If I cannot have equality, I want nothing of love.") but the harrowing details of Bright's Disease are among the many things that finally convince her that the world she inhabits has gotten "ugly."

Of course, her great poems about death accompany her own. Along with Ives' "The Unanswered Question."

This is an admirable and moving film but, unfortunately its virtues don't begin to include some of the greatest virtues of its subject. Look for eccentric rigor elsewhere. This is a very loose and, in truth, occasionally annoying sprawl.


"A Quiet Passion"

Three out of four stars

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff and Emma Bell

Director: Terence Davies

Running time: 126 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive content.

The-lowdown: The life of poetic genius Emily Dickinson from early rebellion to late-life bitterness.



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