NYFF Film Review: Cynthia Nixon Soars in ‘A Quiet Passion’

quiet_passion2016 New York Film Festival: Without the right touch, period pieces can often come across as overly mannered. Luckily, “A Quiet Passion” has the right touch, courtesy of writer/director Terence Davies. Armed with a fantastic performance by Cynthia Nixon, he crafts something far different than you’d expect here. What could have been stodgy and dry is instead lively and at times even a bit fun. I don’t think it ever rises up to the level of an awards contender, for what that’s worth. Still, even removed from Oscar contention, this is a pretty pleasant surprise. The period piece biopic always is in danger of becoming stuffy. “A Quiet Passion” manages to largely avoid that trap.

You wouldn’t necessarily think it going in, but “A Quiet Passion” is a surprisingly witty movie. Characters speak in a period accurate way, but the attitude feels modern at times. It also contains a depiction of aging that’s unlike any transition I’ve seen before. You’ll understand when you see it, but Davies utilizes a simple visual effect that just takes your breath away. Between a moment like that, Nixon’s work, and some of the spunkier moments of the script, there’s more going on here than initially meets the eye. If it’s a missed opportunity to make an Academy Award vehicle, it’s instead just a simply effective independent film.

This is a bit of a greatest hits-type biopic, plot wise. It follows Emily Dickinson throughout her life. We look in at the great American poet as a spunky schoolgirl (Emma Bell) as well as during her reclusive days as an adult (Nixon). Despite being unrecognized for her work by the masses, people like her father (Keith Carradine) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) hear and see her poems. The slight depression of her later years gets a large amount of the focus, though her wit and forthrightness are continually felt in the family. As much as anything, this is about Dickinson the person, as opposed to Dickinson the poet.

a-quiet-passion-3There’s absolutely no question about it, Nixon’s performance is why this film works. She holds your interest, captures your attention, and comes close to making your heart ache. Nixon may very well be putting forth her best work yet here. She just disappears into the role. Also worthy of praise is Bell, who plays the younger Dickinson in much the same way. The aforementioned Ehle is quite good too, with Carradine a solid supporting player as well. Also in the cast are the likes of Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Catherine Bailey, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May and more.

Davies makes one of the more interesting biopics of late here. Chiefly, it’s the way he allows his characters to be complex and fully developed. It never just seeks to be a CliffsNotes version of someone’s life. The movie contains a ton of empathy for a central character who is a fireplug, but also could rub you the wrong way. Yes, Nixon does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but Davies walks a fine line with his script, and it works. The direction is layered and never boring, with noteworthy cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister providing an assistance. “A Quiet Passion” probably won’t catch on like “The Deep Blue Sea” did for him, but it’s no less compelling a work.

Once again, “A Quiet Passion” works mostly due to Nixon and her performance, but also due to the unique way in which Davies tackles it. Nixon is the best thing about the film, but hardly the only element of it worth praising. This is a very solid movie and a bit of a surprise for me here at NYFF. If you tend to enjoy biopics, costume dramas, and/or period pieces, this should be of interest. It tackles those genres in a bit of an unusual way, while still being very much what you hope it can be. “A Quiet Passion” makes quite the compelling case for itself.

“A Quiet Passion” will screen at the New York Film Festival on October 5.

GRADE: (★★★)