A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ remarkable portrait of American poet Emily Dickinson, mines the soul and humanity of its subject through her art and her family, though which she values more is hard to say.
Throughout his film career, Terence Davies has been interested in dichotomies: what the world sees of a person versus how they see themselves; what road society expects them to take and what new paths they themselves want to forge. His female characters look to challenge the male-dominated world they live in, none more so than his previous film Sunset Song (2016), adapted from the Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel about a young woman’s life on a rural farm and the challenges she faces mainly by the men in her life. A Quiet Passion touches on similar themes although the strength we see Emily display comes equally from challenging her father and brother (over their stoic piety and infidelity respectively) but also from other females in her life; her mother, sister and the progressive-thinking confidante Miss Buffam.
Davies seems able to gently bore into the emotional depths of his characters, and therefore keep them distinctly alive, allowing the viewer to invest a great deal of themselves into what they are watching unfold. Much philosophising on life occurs between Emily and her sister Vinnie (played exquisitely by Jennifer Ehle), and much talk about love and lust between her and Miss Buffam, who offers Emily only a most vicarious experience of love through her stories and experiences. Indeed a brief flirtation with a married reverend (whose wife is so pious she abstains even tea), is the closest Emily comes in finding licentiousness in her life.
Through all her travails, it is to her poetry that she always returns, and Davies shows us Emily’s few attempts at getting published, but in mid-19th century America, very few female poets and writers were able to get their work past a male editor’s prejudices. So it is, we see her private poems, the sewing together of little booklets of verse she called ‘fascicles’, seemingly never to be read by anyone but herself.
Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson is superb at showing great emotional range, bringing to the poet a sense of fun and mischief when she is happy, her creeping withdrawal from life and reclusiveness after the death of her father, and a dreadful unease when she is in the throes of the liver disease she is to die from.
A Quiet Passion sits alongside Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) as one of the best portrayals of a poet in cinema. The location shooting in Dickinson’s former home and the mix of European classical and American composers like Charles Ives mirror the mix of tone and mood Davies is able to convey to stunning effect.
A Quiet Passion is released in cinemas on Friday 7 April, and previews exclusively from Friday 31 March at Curzon Mayfair.