Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson in a film divorced from reality. But does it capture the inner essence, if not the surface details, of the great poet? Critic Nicholas Barber has an answer.

Just a few months after Terence Davies’ last drama, Sunset Song, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, his new one, A Quiet Passion, made its debut at Berlin. How did he complete it so quickly? Maybe the trick was that he shot almost all of it in one location with just a handful of actors. The film is a biopic of Emily Dickinson (Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon), the great American poet who spent much of her adult life as a recluse in her parents’ house in Amherst, Massachusetts, so there is some logic to the action being confined to a couple of adjoining rooms and a sunny front garden.

But Davies breaks several other rules of the literary biopic in ways that are harder to justify. The acting and camerawork can be stilted, the actors are decades older than the people they are playing, the dialogue is crammed so tightly with polished witticisms and epigrams that it sounds like Noël Coward arm-wrestling Oscar Wilde, and the choice of scenes seems so random that Davies could have picked them out of a hat: some of the most important people in Dickinson’s life, including her sister-in-law and a supportive editor, are reduced to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos. But while there is plenty about A Quiet Passion that doesn’t work, Davies’ willfully demanding curio is so unconventional and sincere that it’s easy to admire, and it has a few moments of magic which make it all worthwhile.

As luminous as she is, the 49-year-old Nixon is no one’s idea of a 20-something waiting for her prince to come.

One of those moments comes just after its schooldays prologue, when the members of the Dickinson family pose for portraits in a photography studio, and one by one they morph from the actors who played them as youths to the actors who play them as adults. It’s a wonderful sequence, which sets up the theme of time’s unstoppable progress, but the transition between younger and older actors takes place much too soon in the proceedings. As luminous as she is, the 49-year-old Nixon is no one’s idea of a 20-something waiting for her prince to come. And when you’re told that her brother Austin (51-year-old Duncan Duff) has just returned from Harvard, you might assume that he was one of the senior teaching staff.

There is a lot more of this distracting artificiality where that came from. The American Civil War, for instance, is dispensed with in a montage preceded by a shot of a ragged Confederate flag, supposedly waving on a battlefield, but clearly being held in front of a backdrop by fishing wire. It’s so obviously fake that I assumed the flag would then be revealed as part of an amateur puppet show. But no. Davies apparently thought that the shot would pass for grimy realism. No wonder he finished A Quiet Passion so speedily.

Poetic licence

And nothing in the film is more flagrantly artificial than the dialogue, constructed as it is of slogans and quips that sound clever, but which are difficult to unpick on a first viewing. I was particularly puzzled by the exchange in which Dickinson dismisses an unwanted guest with the remark that “familiarity breeds contempt”. Her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) fires back: “Or contempt breeds familiarity!” Er, right. Contempt breeds familiarity. Of course it does.

A Quiet Passion is affecting as a study of someone who is furious that life is passing her by, but who stubbornly refuses to change her ways

Still, in the film’s early scenes, this waspish banter makes for an unexpectedly bright and twinkly mood, as Emily, the faithful Lavinia and their spirited friend Vryling (Catherine Bailey) enjoy their debates about abolitionism, theology and marriage. Emily is also happy to live at home with her stern but loving father (Keith Carradine), as well as a mother (Joanna Bacon) whose disappointment and illness foreshadow her own. As the years drift past, though, Emily’s rebellious independence calcifies into bitterness and hostility, and Nixon, with her Victorian centre-parting and pinched expression, comes to look more and more like the woman in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Although it never gets to the bottom of how and why Emily writes poetry – much of which is quoted in voice-over – A Quiet Passion is affecting as a study of someone who is furious that life is passing her by, but who stubbornly refuses to change her ways accordingly. Is it too early to predict an Oscar nomination for Nixon next year? She makes Emily spiteful to the point of madness, but her yearning and fragility are always there behind the aggression.

As heartfelt as she is, however, her rawness often seems to be pulling in the opposite direction from Davies’ mannered and theatrical approach: his passion is a lot quieter than hers. The film’s deep sympathy for Emily is unmistakable, but it is so stylised that I wished I was watching Nixon on stage in a one-woman play instead – and at times it felt as if I was.


If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.