Perfection and cinema rarely intersect. While a handful of recent films have included superb performances or eye-popping effects, there have been precious few moments of take-your-breath-away wonderment. I'm happy to report that such a moment occurs approximately 20 minutes into A Quiet Passion, the quietest of biopics starring Cynthia Nixon, whose wallop of a performance is easily the best of the year so far.
A young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) is sitting for a portrait photograph, known in the mid-19th century as a daguerreotype. The photographer, using an iodine-coated glass plate brushed by mercury vapor, holds the camera lens open as long as possible. What follows is a bit of magic. In the most seamless of dissolves, Dickinson starts to age through the daguerreotype lens as Bell becomes the older Nixon. You may even need to rub your eyes to believe that Dickinson has transformed. Never have I witnessed such poetic scope in dissolving from one actor to another. As a result, the audience is carried through a transition of time with fluidity, rather than the rigorous tick of a clock. It's a masterwork moment from writer/director Terence Davies. That alone should put A Quiet Passion near the top of your list of must-see films.
While a student at Mount Holyoke College (where she would be drummed out for having not "awakened" to Jesus being her only savior), Dickinson wrote to a classmate, "I expect that I shall become the Belle of Amherst."
History tells us that Dickinson would never become that "belle." Instead, she lived a life of deepening reclusiveness at her parents' home in Amherst, Mass. While her private writings became more prolific (her acclaim would only come after her death), Dickinson's inability to sustain—let alone tolerate—relationships with other humans grew proportionally. For example, when a local newspaper publisher (who only agreed to print a handful of Dickinson's poems anonymously), chastises the poet for her brusque attitude toward possible visitors, she pushes back with her own code of perfection.
"If you treated a suitor like this, he would not return," the publisher says.
"If he does come, he will have to be as spectacular as Disraeli and sincere as Gladstone," Dickinson counters.
"And as upright as George Washington?" adds the publisher.
"George who?" deadpans Dickinson.
Biographer Richard Sewall, whose biography on the poet won the 1974 National Book Award, wrote, "The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always." It wasn't until after her death in 1886, at the age of 55, that nearly 1,800 poems—all sewn into tiny envelopes—were discovered in Dickinson's bedroom.
In A Quiet Passion, we have real, private Dickinson—the solitary soul who never marries, never experiences any notoriety and turns more inward with every passing minute. To her credit, Nixon is careful never to make Dickinson any more likeable than she probably was. Rather, Nixon navigates the astounding paradox of her personality, fleshing out an inwardly passionate yet outwardly ungracious person who charts a path out of sync with society's norms while privately expressing herself with life affirming poetry.
I have followed Nixon's career since her Broadway debut in the early 1980s when she was teenager. She is indeed an accomplished actress: a Tony, Emmy and even a Grammy award winner. Her performances have ranged from the sublime (Rabbit Hole) to the salacious (Sex and the City) But she has never been better than she is in A Quiet Passion. She is poetry in motion.