A Quiet Passion succeeds in communicating the finer points of societal repression, while also adding further intimate shading to a historical figure too often seen as a caricature.
Emily Dickinson is most famous, beyond her caustic, paradigm-shifting verse, for her reclusiveness, a quality that helped resign her to obscurity during her lifetime and continues to plague her subsequent reputation. In the shorthand summary of her life, she’s invariably characterized as either a morose depressive, unable to cope with the indignities of everyday life, or a would-be free-spirit, crushed down by the constraints associated with 19th century femininity. Both of these portrayals contain some semblance of truth, yet both also ignore the fact that Dickinson was never a total hermit, was celebrated locally for her baking prowess, and only retreated into isolation late in life, after years of heartbreak and chronic illness. Breaking through the crust of legend, Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion brings this small story to life without resorting to simplistic reduction or high-flown melodrama, crafting a starkly tragic tale of loss that still feels true to the complex personality of its subject.
Like Dickinson, Terence Davies is an artist who’s distilled a distinctive trademark style, in which stringent classicism is buoyed by a mix of inventive experimentation and formal rigor. The two are also tonal kindred spirits, with work that blends gentility and gloom, plumbing dark corners of emotional experience while never losing an innate sense of humor about the entire undertaking. As depicted here, the poet is a dynamic woman unwilling to bend to the standards of her time, and particularly disinclined to tolerate mediocrity in any form. This portrayal is aided by the textured work of Cynthia Nixon, who embodies these qualities with a performance that’s both structured and ebullient, tightly bound by rules surrounding her, but always finding some way to subvert authority. These tactics start off as winsome tricks and smart remarks, gradually bending toward a scathing, alienating coldness that forms the baseline for her rejection of the world around her.
As with last year’s Sunset Song, which worked in the tradition of English pastoral women’s pictures while smartly updating the format, A Quiet Passion represents a familiar type of genre piece pushed into bold new territory. In this case it’s the genius-centered biopic, a narrative configuration that here gets crushed down to its grimmest minimal point. Starting in youth, specifically a scene involving a moment of acute solitude experienced at a religious academy, the plot charts a progressive piling up of little insults and disappointments. As with Sunset Song, the trudge towards tragedy involves an implicit battle between interiors and exteriors; where that film offered sweeping vistas of sumptuous English countryside, this one delimits its Amherst environs to a few passing outdoor scenes, spending more and more time indoors, in the shadow-wreathed mustiness of the Dickinson abode, as it develops.
Both films also feature women menaced and sustained by the tight bonds of family. A Quiet Passion is ultimately a bleak movie, albeit one saved from mere depressiveness by an acerbic script and fluid direction. It’s portrayal of family life is particularly rich, with Keith Carradine playing Dickinson’s father, Duncan Duff as her brother Austin, and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie. The strength of the ensemble cast, and the time and care Davies devotes to elucidating their compound relationship, fleshes out the feeling of a family whose members play off one another, each highly accustomed to the quirks and faults of the others. As time, sickness and conflict break down this tight domestic network, a new sense of isolation is fostered, a condition which speaks both to specific circumstances of the story and the contemporary reality of a world in which familial bonds have slackened, a theme that’s remained constant throughout Davies’ oeuvre. This breakdown is the central aspect of the narrative, and provides the window through which Dickinson’s experience can be viewed.
The process of writing, meanwhile, is barely featured, a wise choice considering how inherently uncinematic it is, and how clumsy attempts to convey the transportive joys of the process so often are. Instead, Davies opts to display Dickinson’s pursuit of artistic practice as another implicit feature of her unconventionality; she does all her work in the dead of night, a choice that also points to the somewhat illicit nature of her writing, most of which remained hidden away for years after her death. Poems also appear as commentary voiceover, highlighting the thickening clouds of despair that steadily overtake the author’s once-expansive life. This soft-touch approach to expressing creative brilliance and personal dissatisfaction ends up producing something far more tactile than the usual filmed biography. Capturing a political story of quashed liberation through a domestic lens, A Quiet Passion succeeds in communicating the finer points of societal repression, while also adding further intimate shading to a historical figure too often seen as a caricature.