A Quiet Passion
Terence Davies seems destined to be British cinema’s perennial bridesmaid. His work is amongst the finest this country has produced and yet Ken Loach-ian recognition eludes him. It’s a shame because no other director invests themselves quite so openly in their films. He has had limited success with ostensibly traditional dramas; The Deep Blue Sea is a marvel, but the more recent Sunset Song was relatively misjudged, though astonishingly beautiful.
A Quiet Passion is wonderful. A powerful tribute to the incredible talent of Emily Dickinson whose work was unrecognised during her life. Davies appears to have a newfound confidence that allows him to make a film that is undeniably his without recourse to his own life experience. That said, if it is the case, he’s cheating a little bit because his personality shares so much with Dickinson. We'll have to let such indulgence slide because the result is superb. Such clear fascination with a subject could blinker other directors, but as he has demonstrated before, Davies is sharper when he is being self-critical. And when he considers the life of the great American poet, that is precisely what he is doing.
Emily Dickinson was a tortured soul and the film captures her quiet despair and rebellion as well as her not so quiet passion. Never married, always at odds with what society thought she should be, prone to crippling self-criticism and yet armed with a fierce intelligence and sophisticated wit, she was a writer far ahead of her own time. Even that cursory and rather ignorant assessment of Dickinson reveals parallels with Davies and indeed, the opening monologue of the film could be from his own mouth. So too Davies shares Dickinson’s relationship to her faith, her family, her gender and sexuality. This could even be considered a feminist work and if it is, Terence Davies would be the man to do it.
The period setting and casual observations of society at the time, including the outbreak of the American Civil War, may initially appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, but as with Davies’ best work, such as Distant Voices, Still Lives, it has no plot as such. The narrative works like an indistinct memory of a dream and it suits the material as it renders it almost like poetry itself. It's very internalised, so the occasional thread is allowed to be left loose. The precisely engineered dialogue is razor-sharp and witty and while it can feel unrealistic and more like the author’s voice rather than different characters, this is appropriate. It’s like an auto-biography Emily Dickinson never quite wrote. Of course, we do have her verse, and curated lines pepper the screenplay. This is a film that can quickly disarm you when you hear a passage of her work.
Putting Dickinson and the screenplay aside for a moment, A Quiet Passion finds Davies in a rude form visually. The early theatre scene with a segue to the family home is vintage, reminding us of similarly audacious moments from his past work. As is the shift from the first to the second act, via ageing the cast in photographs. A striking moment that can produce a goose bump or two, outdone only by a sublime dream sequence and a magnificent closing scene. That film can still be this powerful is reassuring.
Emily Dickinson’s verse renders with Davies' visuals as perfect musical cinema, in the purest, poetic sense of the phrase. Not as show-tunes, of course, but an understanding that film has a heartbeat and that narrative can be fractured, episodic, but still fluid. In A Quiet Passion, there is harmony with the voices of Terence Davies and his subject. Whether the director adopted her sensibility as a mimic would or in her instead found a kindred spirit, the result is occasionally sublime.
Cynthia Nixon is terrific as Emily. Her cheerful yet brittle demeanour sells the satirical comedy that undercuts some of the most barbed dialogue, even when her story is tragic. She always had her family. Nixon is ably supported by Jennifer Ehle, who plays her sister Vinnie. Unusually for a Terence Davies film, her father (an excellent Keith Carradine) features more than her mother (Joanne Bacon). Some of the best scenes come from Carradine as Dickinson's father was supportive of her work, but not as far as she would have liked. Of the rest of the cast, Catherine Bailey threatens to steal every scene she is in as Vryling Boffam, a close friend of both sisters and of particular fascination to Emily. Miss Boffam has her cake and eats it; a rebel who knows how to play the society game whilst Emily is ostracised.
The film finds another gear in the third act as Dickinson’s behaviour becomes harder to accept for her family and she becomes more reclusive. The film could be at fault for being choosy about how critical of the woman it is, but again, it is as if from her perspective. So far as this narrative is concerned, she tackles her demons at a time of her choosing, not others.
There is also little appreciation of Dickinson’s public persona or an idea of how much work she produced. Then again, those that know her poetry don’t need that spelling out. Biographies often stretch themselves too thinly and it can be argued that the best ones are limited to a single event in the subject's life, an event that can represent them with the most clarity. Instead, we usually get the origin, the highs, the lows, the finale, the whole thing. But fans know the facts. Davies’ ambition does explore her life from that of a young girl but does so in an unusually disciplined manner for the genre. It is only her, frankly flawed, perception of her own life, punctuated by her verse. As such, Davies perfectly captures who she really was in her eyes. And therefore he allows us to form our own appreciation. Ultimately, in this perfect marriage, fans of Emily Dickinson may find a director with whom they can sympathise, whilst those who follow the work of Terence Davies will find a poet.
Arguably his most ambitious film, successfully conflating his own experience with that of one of his heroes, Davies aficionados will find irony in every turn of A Quiet Passion. Maybe it is easy to read too much into it, but it even feels like Davies is working out some demons through this story, so precise is the screenplay. His sincerity and commitment never in doubt. Where next? After all, if one does wish to read deeply, the ending - one of the finest moments of his career - could have a sense of closure for Davies and we should regard his next project with renewed interest.
As with Sunset Song, the cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister in A Quiet Passion is extraordinary and the Blu-ray accentuates this perfectly. Florian also worked with Terence Davies on The Deep Blue Sea. Colours are stunning, while there is a rich depth even in darkness, such as when Dickinson writes in the middle of the night.
The score is used sparingly but can be piercingly effective, in particular, the closing scene which is a stunning piece of cinema anyway. The swelling of the music completes the spell and it’s delivered perfectly on the Blu-ray. Throughout the film, which is heavy with dialogue, voices are crystal-clear and distinct for all characters.
Commentary by Director Terence Davies
Terence Davies is an enthusiastic narrator. Like Emily Dickinson, as she is presented in the film, he has often struggled with his past and identity, but if anything this makes him even more entertainingly sardonic. He’s very focussed and never short of anything to say. After all, he narrated his own documentary, Of Time And The City.
Deleted Scene (2m)
Largely superfluous, but it features the marvellous Miss Boffam, so worth seeing.
Making Of (2m)
An interesting quirk of the production is that A Quiet Passion has been made in conjunction with a documentary about Emily Dickinson from Hurricane Films. This Making of is from that documentary and features brief interviews with Terence Davies, Cynthia Nixon, and Jennifer Ehle.
My Letter to The World (6m)
And this is an excerpt from the documentary discussing Emily in a wider context than just the film.