Though the name Emily Dickinson may be well known—most can identify her as one of the greatest American poets—not many can recite the Belle of Amherst, a play about her life, line-by-line. That same disparity can be found in the oeuvre of the criminally underseen British filmmaker Terence Davies, whose Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes are often cited as two of the greatest films of the last 30 years. Greatness does not always equal popularity. Thankfully, A Quiet Passion is here to change all that and bring these somewhat reclusive artists from out of their rooms and into the light of the present tense.
Written and directed by Davies, A Quiet Passion is a bio-pic about Emily Dickinson, from her rebellious years as a young woman (played by Emma Bell) eschewing the church’s overreaching possession to a life of prolific creation but disappointing romance. As an adult, Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, and few actors suit their role better. Davies wrote Passion specifically for Nixon, and the combination of actor, filmmaker, and subject have rarely mixed better.
Not that this is a relationship of saccharine admiration. Davies refrains from either lionizing or sterilizing Dickinson in the slightest. Instead, Davies and Nixon work to present Dickinson, warts and all. They don’t soften her sharp tongue nor smooth out her acerbic personality, all of which informed her uncompromising vision for her poetry. Few constructed and punctuated their verse quite like Dickinson, and in one scene, she argues with her publisher over a few minor changes. Changes, the publisher assures, he made only to clarify. Dickinson rebuffs the assumption that she needs anyone to interpret or clarify her work. Davies films this interchange evenly, siding partly with his artist and her integrity but also with the publisher, who has a job to do. Dickinson only managed to publish a dozen or so of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime. Had she compromised, would she have seen more fame and fortune while still living?
Neither Davies nor Nixon deigns to answer such speculation. Instead, they celebrate the work that was and is. Dickinson’s poems are presented as music, beautifully recited by Nixon throughout the film while Davies’ camera peers deeply into the souls of his subjects, including Dickinson’s father (Keith Carradine), brother (Duncan Duff), sister (Jennifer Ehle), and closest friend, Vryling Buffum (Catherine Bailey).
Davies, one of the great formalists of contemporary cinema, directs and photographs this story with a rigor and courteousness that meshes wonderfully with Dickinson’s wealthy Massachusetts’ elite of the 19th century. And, like Dickinson, Davies knows when it is time to remain a polite and respectable distance and when to move in for the kill. Like Dickinson’s well-honed tongue, Davies moves his camera to reveal these characters’ secrets, their desires, their shortcomings, and, in one marvelous movement of subtle trickery, their very mortality.
A Quiet Passion is like a martini made from the finest gin and vermouth around, shaken so vigorously that the two ingredients are inseparable and served ice cold. An absolute delight.
A Quiet Passion (2016)
Written and Directed by Terrence Davies
Produced by Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Emma Bell, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jennifer Ehle, Catherine Bailey
Music Box Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 125 minutes, Opened April 17, 2017
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 44, “A match made in heaven.”