Fortunately, the singular English filmmaker Terence Davies knew more about her and is used to having hard times funding his movies (“Passion” took 4 1/2 years to get off the ground). But while his life of Dickinson may look conventionally uneventful, he draws an emotional and intellectual maelstrom out of star Cynthia Nixon and a sharp supporting cast playing Emily’s relatives and acquaintances, which includes Jennifer Ehle as sister Lavinia, Duncan Duff as brother Austin and Keith Carradine as their dad, Edward.
“It’s surprising that, apart from ‘The Belle of Amherst,’ this one-woman play in the 1970s, they’ve never tried to make a movie of Emily Dickinson before,” adds Nixon, who grew up watching the PBS version of “Amherst” and listening to recordings of Dickinson’s poems by its star Julie Harris. “It must be partly because of how solitary she was and the external events of her life are not that dramatic. But the passions inside her, between her and her family members and would-be lovers, were very intense.”
Or conventional romance (for its heroine anyway; Emily got pretty worked-up about her brother’s infidelity, among numerous other topics). “I discovered her poetry when I was 18,” says Davies, who’s best-known for his semi-autobiographical films about growing up in postwar working-class Liverpool, “The Long Day Closes” and “Distant Voices, Still Lives.” “She’s my favorite American poet, and when I heard about this extraordinary life I read quite a bit and I thought, this is a very powerful story.”But one with no action.
At least according to anybody who’s ever had the wherewithal to make a motion picture, which explains why “Passion” is the first Dickinson biopic. “A Quiet Passion” is an exquisite film about the life of Emily Dickinson. Good thing it is, too, since we’re not likely to get another biopic about the great American poet anytime soon.The crude outline of the Belle of Amherst’s life story, that she was a recluse who spent practically all of her 55 years in her father’s house, ain’t exactly cinematic material.