SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss some aspects of plot and character. If you'd prefer to see this movie with a blank slate, please watch it before reading this review.
The concepts of seclusion, loneliness and alienation are not ones that automatically strike you as being fertile fields of cinematic storytelling. There are exceptions, most notably in Martin Scorsese's classic Taxi Driver, but movies often opt for more flashy stories. The story of Emily Dickinson may not be flashy, but as showcased in A Quiet Passion, it is incredibly compelling.
That is, first and foremost, a testament to the work of Cynthia Nixon in the leading role as the famous poet. Nixon masters the subtleties of this character, and she does so in a way that is often rife with humor. I found myself laughing repeatedly throughout this film.
At other times, as the title might suggest, the film is quiet. It showcases the alienation that Dickinson felt in her later years, and it plumbs those depths for drama. If you like a movie that makes you think, this film will offer a great deal to sink your teeth into.
The film takes you on a journey from Dickinson's early years as a schoolgirl, through her budding success as a poet and on into the later years of her life. In that way, it takes the structure of a conventional biopic, but this film differs in how it fleshes out that structure.
Instead of starting at the beginning of her life and then showcasing her most important accomplishments along the way, this film (again, as suggested by the title) focuses more on the quiet moments that Dickinson shared with friends and family. The movie is more interested in her personality and psychology than with her resume. Again, much praise should be given to Nixon for her ability to bring that to life on the screen. She gives what is surely one of the best performances of the year.
I am no poet, and as a writer in general I am still a novice. But for anyone who enjoys writing, and certainly for those who are interested in it as a profession, this film will resonate strongly. Writing is often a solitary endeavor. This film showcases that with acute precision.
This is not an action film, and there are not epic scenes played out on a grand scale. But if I have learned anything in my adult life, it is that simple moments are important. Quiet moments are often just as significant - maybe even more so - than loud, noticeable ones. A Quiet Passion showcases that in a profound way, and it is one of my favorite films of the year for its ability to do so.
Note on content: There is no overt sexual content, though there are allusions to infidelity after a couple embraces on a couch. There are brief depictions of violence in scenes depicting the Civil War, and there are a few scenes of familial arguments. There is no profanity in the film. It is rated PG-13, and should be appropriate for most viewers of any age.