Going into Terence Davies’ film about writer/poet Emily Dickinson, I knew precious little about her life. After seeing it, I think I know even less, but that’s not a distraction or even a disqualifier for A Quiet Passion.
What Davies has managed to do — and which he’s been doing in film since the 1970s — is create such an evocative and dense portrait of mood, feeling and emotion that the simple narrative impetus are thrown away and we’re left with something close to the fading imprint of a memory etched onto the screen with delicate care. It’s a bold move (and a bold movie.) Historical purists won’t be happy. Lovers of art cinema and Davies’ hyper-personal reflections will rejoice.
Beginning with the teenage Dickinson (played by young Emma Bell), we get a brief glimpse of her formative period and the burgeoning rebellious spirit that would blossom fully during her adult years. Stern father (Keith Carradine) holds a stiff upper lip, but he quietly indulges young Emily’s free spirit. Older brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright) is the most serious of the group while sister Vinnie (Rose Williams) tugs on Emily’s sleeves like an encouraging puppy.
In typical Davies fashion, the principal characters are literally aged before our eyes in a slow, face-front zoom as each one poses for a photograph. Adult Emily (played to perfection by Cynthia Nixon) soon becomes the focus. Pieces of her poetry are integrated into the film through voice-over. Her atheist beliefs creep up more and more in conversation, sometimes in direct confrontation with members of the clergy themselves, and her unrequited love for a man she can never have seem to affect her greatly. Perhaps the most damning thing about her is that while adult brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and good friend Elizabeth (Jodhi May) settle into provincial lifestyles, Dickinson remains a spinster, eventually cordoning herself off from most people and retreating into her writing.
Having described all this, I suppose one could say there are a ton of biographical notes about Dickinson’s life, but they reveal themselves secondarily to Davies’ penchant for the image and rhythm of the film. Though the dialogue (from a script by Davies himself) is full of the usual wit and bard found in Gilded Age dramas, A Quiet Passion is a hermetic thing, confined mostly to the interior of the Dickinson household and painted with a variety of golden lights, deep shadows and unobtrusive camerawork by cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, who also lensed Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea (2011).
Combined with this somber elimination of any outside world, except for a few random walks in the garden or visit to an opera house, the soul of the film lies in Cynthia Nixon’s performance as Emily. She embodies the tortured and increasingly lonely writer in a fascinatingly complex way. Outwardly presenting a rebellious attitude and sarcastic wit, inwardly she’s a mass of bitterness and loneliness, none more striking then when a male suitor comes to visit her and adult sister Vinnie (now played by Jennifer Ehle) encourages them to speak. Masked behind a door, at the top of the stairs, Dickinson eviscerates the young man with a few remarks and then retires to the solace of her writings.
Davies makes it clear this is probably the only place she feels comfortable anymore, a place where she can control the ebb and flow of a conversation and the truth of the words speak for themselves. Hearing Dickinson’s writings play over these images takes on a deeper meaning.
Perhaps that’s the most honest way to make a biographical film. Not only do we see the character change before our eyes, but the cemented ideas we once held of them take on a drastically new dimension.
A Quiet Passion opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, May 19 at the Angelika Film Center locations in Dallas and Plano.