Emily Dickinson was a poet obsessed with death and Terence Davies is a film director obsessed with religious guilt, so it makes sense that his film about her would be profoundly morbid, and A Quiet Passion is. The thing I wasn't expecting at all is that it would also be the funniest movie released in American theaters in 2017, which it maybe is, though taste is what it is and all that. Like all the very best biopics (and even so benighted a genre is capable of the odd masterpiece now and then), A Quiet Passion doesn't present its central figure as a plaster saint to be admired, cooed at, and safely respected, but as a lively human being in full, full of passions both triumphant and frankly nasty. She's a genius, she's a frustrated proto-feminist without the necessary 20th Century vocabulary to quite articulate the unfairness in the world around her, she's capable of very hard and unyielding judgments, rendered in a bitter, acidic tongue. That is to say, she has a hell of a sense of humor, a lacerating one, and the secret triumph of A Quiet Passion is to foreground the poet's instantaneous wit in front of the more stuffily serious things about her personality that would make for a more traditionally sober-minded biopic.

The sobriety comes; this is, after all, a film by one of the English-speaking world's all-time most grave and consequential filmmakers, whose best and best-known films (Distant Voices, Still Lives, from 1988, and The Long Day Closes, from 1992) are covered in a quiet hush of melancholy. A Quiet Passion could, indeed, have been the title of any one of Davies's features prior to now. Still, Emily Dickinson's poetry is more interesting than just "she was obsessed with death", and Davies's script, a composite drawn from several un-cited biographies, does a fine job of suggesting the mind of a master artist, one who can never turn off the bright vitality of a creative mind no matter how much the universe conspires against her ability to express it.

Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, giving one of the most remarkable performances of a real person in many an age. It helps, of course, that Dickinson was a recluse in the days before recording media (she was photographed all of once in her life, I believe, in a moment mythologically recreated here), so all our sense of the woman is what we know of her poems and surviving letters, but that provides Nixon with enough to go on. And oh, how very far she goes, crafting a version of Emily as someone dangerously too smart for the world she's been born into, smart enough to know when she needs to hide that fact though it causes her much irritation and sorrow to do so.

Irritation is, in fact, maybe the most important emotion we see this character ever express: her dread at mortality only seeps into the movie as it goes along, slowly replacing her biting good humor starting a little bit before the midway point. Irritation is a constant, and the biggest fluctuation between scenes is often how much Emily is or isn't willing to swallow that irritation with good grace and the breeding expected of a lady of an important family in an unimportant town.

That's the other part of it, of course. Davies doesn't make films about personalities in isolation, but about personalities set against specific times and places. While in keeping with his reclusive protagonist, he rarely ventures outside of the Dickinson home, and so we get almost no sense of Amherst, MA as a community, we do have a sense of how the closeness and conservatism of an upstanding New England Protestant community works to shape the interpersonal interactions we see, and not just in terms of Emily's attempts to rage against the society pinning her down with its views on gender and faith. Obviously, that's the most immediately obvious facet of it, right from the fraught opening scene, in which teenage Emily (Emma Bell) firmly but politely declares her disconnection from the received religious wisdom that her family has positioned her for, sending her off to a young ladies' seminary. And it's what drives the most lively, funny scenes in the first half between her and her good friend Vryling Buffam (Caroline Bailey), a pair of vicious wits looking to tear down all the edifice of 19th Century prim properness through their deadly sarcasm.

Beyond that, though, A Quiet Passion is also interested in the more simple environmental issues of how these people live - what happens in the course of an average day, essentially, and what the rhythms are in the house. That sense of life's quotidian rhythm is the best of Davies's priorities - it's the central element of his reigning masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives - and he hasn't pinned that down better than this in any of his 21st Century films to date. In a very distinct way, and even without recourse to Nixon's vitalising performance, we get a clear sense of how it feels to be Emily Dickinson just from the way that Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister frame the excellent sets with a gentle gloominess cut by diffuse light.

While Nixon (and Bell!) are the central focus her, and the film is primarily interested in dissecting the quiet misery of being an Emily Dickinson-sized genius in these circumstances, the film is lucky to have a terrific ensemble cast filling in Emily's world with various different life forces that all serve, ultimately, to contrast with her blazingly intellectual insularity. Bailey and her darting sarcasm is one of the great standouts, but it would be impossible to rank all of the excellent performances: Jennifer Ehle, long one of the most frustratingly mis-used actors of her generation, is superb as Emily's younger sister Vinny, a sweet, upbeat soul to contrast with Emily's caustic depression; an unrecognisable Keith Carradine serves as the vaguely arch, but generally thoughtful and kind (if not "loving") Dickinson father, in his nice way always making it clear that he regards Emily as both a wonderful daughter and very much not worth the trouble.

There's enough that has gone wrong in stupid little ways to keep this from joining the ranks of the great Davies masterpieces. There's a short Civil War montage that's almost hilariously bad, like Davies decided for no reason to plug a Ken Burns parody into his arthouse biopic; and scene transitions can be a bit rocky. Generally, the further the film strays from static, quiet medium shots and close-ups of people sitting patiently, the more that Davies's hand betrays him. It's also a pity that the one visible use of post-production trickery - a graceful transition from youth to middle age that deserves to be one of the highlights of the whole film - stumbles upon some very obviously cost-conscious digital work. But these are, let's be clear nitpicks. Just plain first order nitpicks, more intended to justify withholding that last half star. A Quiet Passion is absolutely great cinema: carefully managed visuals designed to place us in the world of a protagonist whose is written and acted to be a truly exciting, vivid psychology, and all in service to unforced lessons about identity as a human, a woman, and a family member that don't feel a touch musty, regardless of the film's chronological setting. This is a tremendous achievement, and one of the great gems of the 2017 movie year.