The first thing one may notice in the opening moments of Terence Davies’s new Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion is the self-consciously theatrical manner in which all of the actors deliver their lines of dialogue. It’s the kind of extremely correct, perfectly enunciated articulation that might play well on a stage, with the audience members at a considerable remove, but which can’t help but feel artificial with a camera close to the performers. Those who are familiar with Davies’s previous work, though, will know that he is capable of a more persuasive type of naturalism—of recent films, his 2011 screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stage play The Deep Blue Sea offers ample proof of this—so clearly this is a distinct stylistic choice on the filmmaker’s part, one that only begins to make sense the deeper Davies wades into dramatizing the American poet’s brief, tragic life.
Dickinson was, as many of you probably already know by now, a recluse for much of her life, with only a few of her poems published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously and often edited against her wishes. Her high literary reputation only came posthumously, after more of her poems were brought to a wider public, her name finally attached to them. If A Quiet Passion suggests anything, that reclusiveness was a possibly inevitable byproduct of the wholly intellectual manner in which she contemplated matters of the soul. For better or worse, she lived a life of the mind. In that light, perhaps the stilted nature of the many dialogue scenes in Davies’s film is a reflection of that, implying a cultivated insularity that hastened her path toward single life and isolation.
That might make the film sound vaguely condescending on Davies’s part. But the cumulative effect of A Quiet Passion is one of deep empathy toward this elusive figure. Davies lightly suggests some of the root causes of her eventual withdrawal from daily life: fundamental disagreements with religious elders over the nature of God and belief, mixed messages from her father (Keith Carradine) about when to speak her mind and when to fall in line with accepted tradition, a society at large that teemed with sexism toward women. But, unlike most traditional biopics that prefer to tidily explain their real-life subject’s behavior and personality, Davies refuses to make such pat one-to-one connections. Instead, such possibilities are allowed to float in the air, giving even the most mundane of dialogue scenes a deeper layer of psychological mystery.
Above all else, Davies seems enamored with Dickinson’s lack of compromise in the way she lived her life. This defiance is established right in the film’s opening scene, in which a younger Dickinson (Emma Bell) talks back to a sister at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, defiantly articulating her own personal views on living a good life in the eyes of God. She has many other such headstrong outbursts throughout the film, many of them related to matters of spirituality and morality; she’s even willing to furiously call out her own family members for straying from a righteous moral path. And yet, even at her most abrasive, there was always a sense of introspection that verged on self-loathing, and which perhaps explains the streak of morbidity in her poetry.
Speaking of her poetry, a fair amount of it is featured on the soundtrack of A Quiet Passion, all of it recited by Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson as an adult. Her words are usually juxtaposed with moments and images that reflect the words being recited, in ways that suggest how certain events in her life might have inspired them. Otherwise, though, except for a couple of stray moments, we don’t really see Dickinson engaged in the act of artistic creation. This seems like the correct decision on Davies’s part, though: There’s nothing inherently cinematic about seeing anyone simply sitting down and writing, and Davies doesn’t try to puff up this profoundly introspective act with artificial excitement. Instead, he simply dramatizes the particulars of Dickinson’s biography and trusts us to draw the connections between her life and her art for ourselves.
A Quiet Passion continues Davies’s recent turn away from the relatively more radical formalism of some of his earlier works. With films like the aforementioned The Deep Blue Sea, last year’s Sunset Song and now this film, he’s embracing a classicism that is a far cry from, say, the still-astonishing collage of British history and memory that is his 1992 masterpiece The Long Day Closes. Compared to that film, A Quiet Passion feels visually staid—but considering the increasingly constricted nature of Emily Dickinson’s existence, perhaps that was inevitable. Still, Davies manages to wring a lot of beauty out of the many interiors, with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister using natural light in ways that frequently recall Renoir, Monet and other Impressionist contemporaries. And there are a few sequences here and there in which he flexes his imaginative muscles—most memorably, a fantasy sequence with a mysterious male stranger ascending up Dickinson’s staircase, which could be read as an expression of her own sexual repression, or an evocation of her own morbid embrace of death.
Ultimately, though, it’s Davies’s screenplay that carries the day—and it’s quite possible that he has never written a script quite as full of sharp, cutting wit as this one. Much of the film’s first half, in fact, plays as comedy—unexpected for a filmmaker not normally known for his funny bone. But there’s a deliciousness to seeing Dickinson mow down religious sanctimonies and hypocrisies with her crisply articulated, wounding remarks, and in her interactions with her proudly outspoken dear friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). One is reminded of the caustic moments in Davies’s own voiceover narration in his 2008 documentary memoir Of Time and the City (especially the irritation in his voice as he dismisses The Beatles). Inevitably, that freshness peters out as Dickinson becomes more cloistered, but Davies’s words retain their psychologically penetrating sting, especially as she wrestles with her own increasing penchant for judging others harshly for perceived sins. “We’re only human, Emily,” pleads her patient sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). “Don’t pillory us for that.” There’s devastating poignancy in A Quiet Passion’s implication that Emily Dickinson may have failed to live up to her own personal high standards in choosing to recede from the world at large. But at least her poetry lives on, still existing to illuminate a mind that remained continually engaged with some of the largest themes of human existence.
Director: Terence Davies
Writer: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey
Release Date: April 14, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.