Envelops the senses in warm, gentle waves of cinematic opulence.
A Quiet Passion (Berlin Review)
Even though Emily Dickinson would become one of America’s most celebrated female poets, she led a hard life in the 1800s. She didn’t share her family’s ecclesiastical leanings, her passion was firmly rooted in poetry (not homemaking), she judged those around her too harshly, and, of course, she was a she. Beside her innate urge to express herself through poetry, which she would write in the quiet of night while the rest of the world slept, Emily’s other passion was her bottomless love for her close-knit family. Through exquisitely framed medium shots, supple camera movements, and a screenplay full of wealth and wit, legendary British filmmaker Terence Davies creates a lush biopic that does justice to a unique artist, slightly meandering on a few tangents along the way.
It feels like Cynthia Nixon is in the middle of her own Nixonassance, especially when you consider her searing portrayal of last year’s indie hit James White in addition to the powerhouse portrayal she conjures up here in A Quiet Passion. She so wholly embodies the poetess, you’d think she found a time machine to travel back to the 1800s and trace every inch of gesticulation and countenance befitting the introverted and rebellious woman. Emma Bell does a fine job as Young Emily in the first part of the film, when we get introduced to the Dickinson household and get a taste of conservative life in Massachusetts. But once Nixon enters the stage, you hear pins drop till the final curtain.
Scenes flow into one another like liquid being poured by The Queen’s butler, tracing the ebbs and flows of Emily’s emotional and mental state as she comes to terms with her own personality, the love she feels for her family, and her growing bitterness towards high society values. Her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle, continuing to prove how unforgivably underused she is), her brother Austin (a slightly spotty Duncan Duff), her father (a brilliantly stoic Keith Carradine), her sweet mother (an outstanding Joanna Bacon), and Austin’s wife Susan (a revelatory Jodhi May)—all play vital roles in shaping Emily. Outside her immediate family, no one makes a bigger impact than Miss Buffam (a sensational Catherine Bailey); with a wit and banter second to none, she outplays every man in the room and always leaves room for more. It’s little wonder that Emily becomes instantly infatuated with her spirit. A Quiet Passion exposes a singular personality through the relationships and conversations she has with those closest to her. And for much of the running time, it’s consuming to the point of forgetting everything else in the world.
Davies’ bountiful screenplay takes the cake in terms of how rhythmic and effortless the viewing experience feels. It’s so vibrant with its verbiage, 1800s colloquialism, and sharp comebacks that there are scenes where it almost trips over itself, creating the “too much of a good thing” excess feeling. The first half of the film also overflows with a wonderful sense of humor. Then there’s, of course, the director’s signature painterly camera movements, pivoting around interiors to create an astonishing sense of intimacy and closeness. He would stay on characters during their most fragile moments (especially during the heart-wrenching scenes featuring Bacon) and gradually grind the viewer’s emotions into sawdust. The way he transitions from the early to the later years during a photo shoot sequence is breathtaking. All this is helped by Florian Hoffmeister’s brilliant work with lights and shadows; whether by candle or by sun, the glow that overwhelms A Quiet Passion is palpable.
Moving beyond the formal aesthetics and award-worthy performances, it’s Emily Dickinson’s character that keeps the film’s heart beating. Her flaws, her virtues, her desires, her idiosyncrasies, her painstaking love and love-wound pain—all are ironed gently to create a truly complex and mesmerizing personality. Affronted by obviousness in every aspect of life and art, so sharp in demeaning the overt piety and patriarchal Puritanism she was faced with on a daily basis, the Emily Dickinson that emerges is one fiercely intelligent, determined, funny, empathetic, and infinitely interesting woman. This, above all else, makes A Quiet Passion the magisterial film that it is, and confirms Terence Davies as director who knows how to tackle femininity from all angles.
While all this stands, the picture does tend to lose the plot on a few occasions, especially towards the end during what looks like a fever dream sequence involving Emily and an anonymous man. It’s a jarring moment that broke the magic spell for a few brief minutes, and though I understand its intention, I find myself wishing that it were executed in a more refined way. A blasphemous thought to have considering this is Terence Davies, but there it is. The in-and-out narration of Emily’s select poems will also ignite frustration in a lot of viewers I imagine.
Thanks to these quibbles, the film is a step below the enchantment of Sunset Song and The Deep Blue Sea. But no matter how well versed you are with Emily Dickinson’s poems, A Quiet Passion still manages to envelop the senses in warm, gentle waves of cinematic opulence for most of its running time.