A Quiet Passion
Dir: Terence Davies
Starr: Cynthia Nixon (Emily Dickinson), Jennifer Ehle (Vinnie Dickinson), Catherine Bailey (Vryling Buffam), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson), Duncan Duff (Austin Dickinson)
UK / Belgium, 125mins
A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Terence Davies in London whilst he was working on the post-production elements of his Sunset Song (2015) adaptation. That film was his second feature in the space of four years, which hinted at a return to the productivity of the 1990s, before the funding problems of the new millennium. During the interview Davies claimed that he still had three more projects that he wished to realise, time and money allowing. One of them was a biopic of the great American poet Emily Dickinson, a literary figure that academic studies, led by the likes of Harold Bloom, have somehow converted into a romanticised and idealised secular saint of suffering and repression. Less than a year after Sunset Song Davies has realised that project, and Davies being Davies he cannot resist giving Dickinson’s life a tragic arc, yet her final pain-wracked years of insularity are not his main concern. In A Quiet Passion he appears to have set himself the task of locating all the vibrancy and vital spark in a woman carving out a niche for herself in the forbiddingly patriarchal spaces of a puritanically-minded and rapidly industrialising late-19th century United States. This is not the remote, detached and seemingly apolitical figure of literary legend, but rather a determined and self-determining passion artist.
The film does not stray far beyond Davies’ preference for interior space, being almost entirely shot in studio spaces at AED studios in Belgium, with key sequences and external shots utilising Dickinson’s actual home at Amherst. Yet where it differs from Davies’ previous work is in the sheer radiance with which Dickinson’s home is lit. This is generally a bright and airy domestic space, that makes the disarmingly erotic night time interludes seem even more effective in their suffocating combination of curiosity and dread. One of the few scenes that does occur outside the confines of the Dickinson home and grounds is the one with which the film opens. This is a brilliantly compressed and compacted condemnation of organised religion’s desire for dominance – again the kind of thing that Davies’ has frequently excelled at in the past. As a stern headmistress of a convent school attempts to break the young Emily’s (played by Emma Bell) wilfulness by isolating her from her more pliant and conforming peers, we clearly see the tyranny of a society structured around personal repression and the expectation of female servitude. It is as pugnacious a political statement as Werner Herzog’s brutally straight-forward boot heel opening to his adaptation of Woyzeck (1979), and reminds the audience that Davies initially made his mark with the searing sledgehammer imagery of his early Trilogy (1976-1983).
This is Davies’ third film that takes the US as its location after the literary adaptations of The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000). Whereas, both of those films were shaped, to a large degree, upon their literary source texts, this is Davies’ first venture Stateside with a script entirely of his own devising. This appears to liberate the director as A Quiet Passion works as a biopic through the certainty with which it goes about imagining a living, breathing and impassioned Dickinson, quite rightly paying scant attention to her documented life.
Cynthia Nixon unexpectedly dazzles as the adult Emily, at once waspish, principled, venomous and ethereal. Nixon’s comic abilities have never really been in doubt, and the caustic and witty repartee she shares with Catherine Bailey’s Vryling Buffam, are some of the funniest exchanges of any film this year. Yet the way in which Nixon subtly inhabits the physical pain of Dickinson’s later years, and the complexity that she brings to Dickinson’s relationships with her father (another well-rounded patriarchal turn from Keith Carradine) and sister Vinnie (a piquant performance from the wonderful Jennifer Ehle), makes one wonder why she has never really been entrusted with a dramatic lead role before. The latter sororal relationship is central to Davies’ humanising of Dickinson. Vinnie is both confidante and grounding force in Emily’s life, and Davies frequently frames the sisters in neatly composed two-shots that convey a sly personal language of knowing looks and secret gestures.
Sparing use of Dickinson’s poetry exemplifies Davies’ absolute control of his material. Where other directors would have found it difficult to resist the temptation of letting the poetry blandly narrate, Davies’ always finds a way to relate these poetic inserts to dramatic action, so that they become outpourings of Dickinson’s passion, an interior within an interior. This is never more effective than in the film’s most overt moments of eroticism. There are two sequences within the film in which Dickinson imagines her domestic sphere invaded by a shadowy male figure, who opens a door within the house that illuminates the darkness, and appears to create a doubling of perspective, as the camera apprehends the male figure in motion, before seeming to assume this male figures’ perspective, which ultimately reveals itself as Dickinson’s gaze. This is comparable to Jim Jarmusch’ use of reflective surfaces within another poet film from 2016, Paterson. It encapsulates the poetic process as one which involves the conversion of ‘reality’ into ‘poetry’ through the experience and poetic imagination of the poet/perceiver.
After the profound disappointment that I experienced with Sunset Song, an adaptation that I had, perhaps, far too much invested in, A Quiet Passion came as a welcome return to form from a filmmaker I have a great deal of affection for. Strikingly Davies’ worked once more with his DOP from The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Florian Hoffmeister, but to very different effect. The muted and musty imagery of that post-WWII melodrama, gives way to an intense concern with the extremities of light and dark, day and night in A Quiet Passion. The sharp clarity of sun-drenched drawing rooms, are matched by the obscuring shadows of night’s blackness. There is an interesting ancillary dichotomy at work in this visual patterning, with the revealing light of day proving all too chastening to Dickinson, bringing with it an initial sense of domestic propriety that the poet feels oppressively. The deep, enfolding darkness of night, punctuated by the occasional flare – or glowing orb – of lamp and candlelight, is a private, and by poetic extension, liberating space in which Dickinson can locate those things that elude her daytime existence. This Emily is both imaginatively revealed and deliberately obscured in Davies’ lithe comic drama, that casts darkness into light and then asks its audience ‘what do you see’?