As Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon reveals her depth of range and skill as a performer — emotionally, physically, and technically. This is the third feature in our Special Issue on A Quiet Passion, which can be read in full here.
“You do not demonstrate, you reveal,” says Vryling Buffam, complimenting her friend Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion. The same can be said of Nixon’s leading performance in Terence Davies’ film, which examines Dickinson’s life from her teenage years up until her death. Nixon doesn’t indicate emotions; she reveals them straight from the soul through subtle physical changes, movements of the face and upper body, and by changing the intensity of her eyes. With these physical tools, Nixon can portray piety, wonderment, curiosity, excitement, disdain, grief, sadness, and more to convey the emotional ups and downs of Emily’s journey. Although perhaps best known as Miranda from Sex in the City, one of the show’s rat pack of sexually liberated women trying to find love in New York City, A Quiet Passion reveals the depth and range of Nixon’s skill as a dynamic performer — emotionally, physically, and technically.Emily is an emotional creature whose demeanour often changes depending on with whom she interacts.Click To Tweet
Emily is an emotional creature whose demeanour often changes depending on with whom she interacts. When Emily talks to a friend about her favourite writers, Nixon’s eyes widen, her face is aglow, and she points her chin out as if she’s reaching it closer to the person she is speaking to. With her sister, Vinnie (played by the majestic Jennifer Ehle), a particularly close confidant, she has a relaxed sense of ease in her body and a playfully conspiratorial tone in her voice. But when faced with men, Emily is often forced to defend her actions, becoming “provocative” (as Vinnie calls it). Nixon’s eyes narrow, her eyebrows rise, and she takes up more space with her shoulders and has more purpose in her walk. One such adversary is the local priest who she refuses to pray on her knees along with the rest of the family. Nixon barks her defenses at the priest and sits in a challenging stance with her chest puffed out. Her eye contact never falters, and her voice becomes deeper and firmer.
Nixon’s sensitivity is most on display when portraying Emily’s complex interactions with her father. At times, she is still his little girl trying to please him: her voice is tight, high, and nervous in tone. However, Emily becomes very aggressive when battling his oppressive behaviour. In one scene, Nixon looks down her nose at him, and her voice is harsher, almost hissing her responses as her father reprimands her for her bad behaviour. She points her chin towards her chest as if she is going to butt her head toward her father’s, like a bull about to charge.Nixon looks down her nose at him, and her voice is harsher, almost hissing her responses.Click To Tweet
As she grows older, Emily becomes more and more reclusive and antagonistic. Her moody nature stems from living in a particularly oppressive time for women, coupled with the constant rejection she received regarding her writing; Dickinson remained unappreciated until after her death. Emily’s vulnerability is best revealed during a conversation in Emily’s garden with her friend Vryling Buffam (played cheekily by Catherine Bailey) in which they discuss the purpose of life, piety, and marriage. Buffam compliments Emily’s dedication to her poetry, and Emily replies, “Rigour is not happiness.” In that moment, Nixon drops her smiling façade for her close confidante, and she clenches her lips, trying to hold back tears. The true intention of the line, which reveals Emily’s loneliness and longing for romantic companionship, comes to the surface. These delicate adjustments to Nixon’s performance to show Emily’s vulnerability gave me goosebumps. We catch a glimpse of ourselves in her portrayal.
A Quiet Passion must have been both emotionally and physically demanding for Nixon, as she had to depict Dickinson’s many ailments in her later life. Dickinson suffered from bad back spasms and seizures. Nixon depicts these episodes through the total engagement of her body. Witnessing the seizures on screen is at once alarming and beautiful. When Emily has a back spasm, Nixon releases her legs to the floor, bowing her back to the side and forward, indicating the exact spot where the pain is located. Her voice becomes strained, and her breath work quickens until it appears that she’s hyperventilating. She looks terrified that she cannot control her body.To create the seizure, Nixon allows her entire body to roll and pulsate while lying on the hardwood floor. Click To Tweet
To create the seizure, Nixon allows her entire body to roll and pulsate while lying on the hardwood floor. Because performing a seizure could actually cause physical injury to the actor, Nixon must create the artifice carefully to remain safe. But Nixon performs this episode so precisely that I never question the authenticity of the seizures. Nixon’s arms shake rapidly in front of her. Her mouth opens widely. Over several shots, Nixon shows the progression of the fits, which become faster and faster until they finally slow down. It’s terrifying to watch, and Nixon’s physical commitment makes the audience feel Emily’s horror.Cynthia Nixon takes the audience on a journey of the rise and fall of this tragic heroine.Click To Tweet
Nixon highlights how, as a writer, Emily found deep contentment and could truly be herself. Emily wrote with quiet intensity and passion late at night from 3 a.m. to morning. The film gets its title from this restrained intensity and desire to create that Emily displayed here. “It is the best time, when it feels like the whole world is asleep and still,” Nixon says with a softness and a strength. The light from her oil lamp flickers in her eye and her real joy and love shines through her eyes.The light from her oil lamp flickers in her eye and her real joy and love shines through her eyes.Click To Tweet
Nixon recites Dickinson’s poetry throughout the film in voice-over, which allow her technical skills as a performer to truly shine because she must show Emily’s evolution over the course of the film using just her voice and Dickinson’s poetry. For instance, at the beginning of the film, Nixon delivers each of her poems with shy excitement. This reflects Emily’s early career as a writer, self-conscious but happy. As the film progresses, Nixon’s voice becomes more measured and nuanced because she has grown as a writer in confidence. This mainly has to do with her published works but also being admired for her talents by members of the community. A prime example of this is in Nixon’s reading of “My life closed twice before its close” at the end of the film as Emily’s dead body lies on her bed:
My life closed twice before its close —
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Nixon recites this poem as if she is saying goodbye to the audience, wanting us to remember Emily for her craft as a writer. She elongates ‘immortality’, ‘hopeless’, and ‘heaven’, which draws the audience into the emotional power and melancholy of the poem. Nixon creates a fully rounded character, physically and emotionally through character mannerisms, and sensually, through the rhythm of her voice, which revives the images in Dickinson’s poetry. She takes the audience on a journey of the rise and fall of this tragic heroine.
Read the rest of our Special Issue on A Quiet Passion here.