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A poet’s pained anguish at heart of pretty movie

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    Cynthia Nixon, left, portrays poet Emily Dickenson and Jennifer Ehle plays Dickenson’s sister Vinnie in “A Quiet Passion.”

“A Quiet Passion”

***1/2

(PG-13, 2:06)

There is something deeply funny and also beautiful about the idea that it would take a British man in his 70s to make the definitive film about one of America’s greatest female poets. But that’s what Terence Davies has done for Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a fiercely intelligent, handsome and affecting rendering of Dickinson’s extraordinary, ordinary life from her teenage years to her death in 1886.

Davies’ script is filled to the brim with witty observations and barbs that you’ll want to scribble down, remember and recite. The film opens on a group of teenage girls, all primly dressed and hair parted down the middle as a stern headmistress asks for those who wish to be “Christian and saved” to move to her right, and those who remain and “still wish to be saved” to move to the left. One doesn’t move. A redheaded Emily (Emma Bell) stands firmly in the middle of the room and debates her elder.

“I wish I could feel as others do, but it’s not possible,” Emily says.

She’s the perpetual outsider, at home only with family. She leaves school, saying she’s ill from an “acute case of evangelism,” and retreats home to Amherst, Mass., for the majority of her days.

Still, the world is bright and full of possibility for young Emily. She asks her bemused father (Keith Carradine) for permission to stay awake and write at night. She spars with her conservative aunt with glee. She takes pleasure in making those around her uncomfortable with her wry remarks and sharp tongue. She doesn’t need others — she has her family.

And then age hits. Time passes, conveyed by an unsettling sequence showing the morphing of the Dickinson family’s faces into their older selves, and the sadness and, eventually, bitterness start to creep in.

Cynthia Nixon now inhabits Emily, Jennifer Ehle is her sister and Duncan Duff is her brother. There is still vigor and energy in all, but life has tempered that a bit. Emily finds a lively companion in Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who is even more modern than Emily. But Vryling manages to delight in the silly constrictions of their society where Emily is deeply conflicted and tormented by pressures of piety, decorum and what she feels is right.

And the world only seems to disappoint Emily as time goes on. Some of her poems are published, but not enough. She falls madly in love with a married pastor, but he does not return her affections. Her married brother falls for another woman. Her health begins to fail. And then there’s death, which looms everywhere.

“A Quiet Passion” uses Dickinson’s poetry as a backdrop, like music cued to key points in the story. It’s a film of easy beauty — the palette favors soft blues, yellows, whites and greens. But at its heart is a searing and soulful performance of an anguished artist born into the wrong time. Nixon gives a new life and a womanly dimension to someone who, beyond her haunting words, we only really know visually as a perpetual teenager.

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