Filmmaker Terence Davies early work was intentionally autobiographical. The likes of The Terence Davies Trilogy, Distant Voices Still Lives and The Long Day Closes looked at growing up working class in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, touching on the overwhelming effects of Catholicism on him, as well as his own difficult relationship to being gay. Although his work then hasn’t been so explicitly based on himself, there have always remained very distinct echoes of the director in the subjects he’s chosen and the way he’s approached them.
That continues with A Quiet Passion, his biopic of 19th Century American poet, Emily Dickinson. Davies personal connection to the material is apparent from the first scene, where a young Emily is being asked to pick between two strict ideas of where she and a group of other young women stand in relationship to Christianity. However, she stands alone, unable to say where she should be. Once again Davies is fascinated by the push and pull of religion, of someone who wants the world while simultaneously limiting themselves to a small part of it, as well as the strictures of society for those who both desire to fit in and reject it.
The film follows Dickinson’s enigmatic life as a woman who writes poetry full of great passion and emotion in the dead of night, but whose only life gradually (and somewhat deliberately) shrinks. Never marrying – something she equates to a death, both because of how it has ripped her friends away, and due to way it limits women’s lives – and getting few of her poems published, she gradually begins to withdraw from the wider world, until she barely leaves her bedroom. And then her health begins to fail her.
Dickinson is perhaps best known for the fact that her poems didn’t find an appreciative audience until after she died, as well as her somewhat agoraphobic existence and for always wearing white. A Quiet Passion tries to illuminate her more, and it’s a good fit for Davies, as like Emily he’s always given off the impression of wanting to be seen and understood, while simultaneously distancing himself and being afraid of being directly looked at.
Like much of his other work, it’s a film that asks the audience to do some of the work. It lays out ideas and thoughts without overly interpreting them. It wants people to consider a life that was in many ways a contradiction and to which there aren’t easy answers. Film usually tries to remove all that, so that the viewer is taken on a journey where everything fits together and is easily understood. However, A Quiet Passion know that approach is reductive and overly simplistic. In Dickinson’s case it would almost be blasphemous, as a large part of the appeal of her poetry is that it speaks to people in ways the defy easy explanation.
It’s also true that another of Davies foibles is present, which is a tendency for the film to feel a little detached and mannered, and for the characters to sometimes not sound like they’re speaking like real people would. That would be more of a problem if the film weren’t deliberately talking about a very mannered world, full of limits, strictures and gendered expectancy, and which isn’t tolerant of difference.
What really helps raise it above the norm though is Cynthia Nixon in the central role. She gives an extraordinary performance as Dickinson, bringing to full life a person who in lesser hands might have seemed to make no sense at all.
It is, as the title suggests, a quiet film, and initially it’s one that feels like it may never get under the surface of its subject. However, thanks to Nixon performance and Davies’ genuine fascination with the later parts of Dickinson’s life, it becomes an increasingly fascinating film. Perhaps best of all is that rather than a voiceover explaining things to the audiences, it just allows Dickinson’s poetry to do the talking throughout the film.
Overall Verdict: Never ignoring or trying to gloss over the fact that both Dickinson and her poetry are enigmatic, sometimes contradictory and not easy to fit in a box, A Quiet Passion becomes an increasingly heartfelt and beautifully played character study.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac