It seems strange to say, but “A Quiet Passion,” a biopic on American poet Emily Dickinson, feels tailored to Japan’s sensitive side with its emphasis on inner calm and the dynamics of the family circle.
Cynthia Nixon, best known from the HBO series “Sex and the City,” plays a Dickinson who delights in the mundane details of life. Director Terence Davies has Nixon recite the poet’s work herself in lieu of a voice-over narrative and the overall portrayal of Dickinson’s story is similar to something you might see in a Yasujiro Ozu film: Strong emotions rise with a gentle arc before dipping and fading out.
It’s hard to believe Nixon, who spewed swear words with such total abandon for a solid six seasons in “Sex and the City,” could be capable of such quietude, contemplation and restraint. The film’s production notes state that the actress is a life-long fan of Dickinson’s poetry and that she jumped at the opportunity to play this role. She certainly steps into it with effortless grace.
During her life as in the film, Dickinson ultimately desired little more than the freedom to craft her thoughts into stanzas, away from the dictates of her local Christian community or, God forbid, the confines of marriage. Only a handful of poems were published when she was alive but after her death, her family discovered 40 hand-bound booklets hidden in her room, containing nearly 1,800 poems. She had hand-stitched every one of those exquisite volumes using little more than a pen, stationery paper, needles and thread. If Dickinson were reincarnated in present-day Japan, I’m betting she would have loved stomping the streets of Akihabara before hitting a trendy sewing cafe. No doubt Dickinson is one of America’s most celebrated poets, but “A Quiet Passion” shows she had the soul of a hikikomori otaku (reclusive nerd).
Dickinson’s poems were deceptively simple and even naive. Yet she always grappled with timeless themes such as death, God and eternity while living at her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. She died at the age of 56, having never married. Her sister, Lavinia (called “Vinnie” in the film and played by Jennifer Ehle), also died single. Their brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), got himself married and out of the house, but he moved in next door and remained a constant companion to his two sisters. Such a lifestyle is still popular in Japan, as many single women find it hard to leave their parents’ digs to strike out on their own. It’s a fact that hasn’t changed quite as much as we’d like to think since the days when Ozu drew similar family situations in his movies.
But Ozu very rarely depicted single women in middle age, and perhaps he would have been at a loss what to do with a woman like Dickinson. Between director Davies and Nixon, both draw a compelling portrait of a woman who struggled to keep her ideas fresh and youthful, even as her body aged and her conversations became tinged with bitterness.
As Miranda Hobbes on “Sex and the City,” Nixon’s character was often cited as the least likable of the gang of four that made up the main cast, but she also seemed best-equipped to navigate the long years of middle age and come out the other end quietly triumphant. If nothing else, her portrayal of Dickinson will have you rushing to the poetry section of the nearest neighborhood bookstore.