Terence Davies brings his peculiarly poetic cinematic sensibility to the life of poetess Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a film that, as the title suggests, simmers intently beneath a veneer of cool propriety, just as its subject herself did. Though it occasionally shows the effect of budgetary limitations, like its immediate predecessor “Sunset Song” it represents a richly textured expression of its maker’s distinctive voice, in the processing capturing Dickinson’s as well.
The film will undoubtedly strike some viewers as mannered and overly deliberate, but to criticize it for those qualities means dismissing Davies’ characteristic style. These are the means by which he sought to portray the experience of his own early life in “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” as well as the essence of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” The technique hasn’t always worked to the benefit of the material, but here it links the filmmaker—who obviously worked closely with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister and editor Pia Di Ciaula to fashion the measured yet subtly lyrical rhythm—with his subject, both of them sharing a proclivity to create their work in a hothouse, closed-in environment and to speak, in their respective media, in a form that is elevated, often obscure but always deeply felt.
Davies’ film is, strictly speaking, biographical—it begins with Dickinson’s virtual expulsion from Mount Holyoke for her unorthodox religious views and her return to her father’s house in Amherst—in these early scenes she’s played by Emma Bell—and continues through the years during which she declined to leave the grounds until her death in 1886 at age 56. With Cynthia Nixon now assuming the role, it then portrays Emily’s relationships with her father Edward (Keith Carradine), mother Norcross (Joanna Bacon), brother Austin, initially Benjamin Wainwright, later Duncan Duff) and sister Lavinia (Rose Williams, then Jennifer Ehle). In that connection it portrays Emily’s deep consciousness of loss as first her mother and then her father die, and her rage over her brother’s affair, which she rightly sees as a sign of disrespect to her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May).
While the typically restricting family background of the time and place—as well as the national tragedy of the Civil War unfolding around her (the grim mood of which is handled in virtual shorthand through a montage of contemporary photographs)—provide the dominant atmosphere, however, Dickinson’s sense of bemusement over the shallowness of the prim morality espoused by people like her rigid aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) is employed to puncture it. It’s here that Davies takes his greatest liberty with the historical record, elevating Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend of Lavinia’s, into an aphorism-spouting figure who might have stepped out of a play by Oscar Wilde. Emily shares deliciously rapier conversations with her—until Buffam goes off to be married, the ultimate sort-of escape that Dickinson herself never experienced.
The core of the film, however, is necessarily Dickinson’s verse, which is clearly her passion from the very first. Upon her return home she asks Edward’s permission to write during hours when her doing so won’t bother the rest of the family, and he agrees to the request—something she notes was unusual for the mores of the time against which she (and he) were quietly rebelling. Davies cannot explain in any simplistic fashion her drive to write, and doesn’t spend much time showing her do it, but he does offer a taste of the result in voiceover excerpts periodically read by Nixon. He also epitomizes the unresponsive attitude to her poems while she lived in the obtuseness of the man who published the few poems of hers that appeared during her lifetime, but never appreciated their uniqueness.
That theme, combined with Emily’s suppressed longing for love as well as recognition, colors the other major subplot of the film—her relationship with Charles Wadsworth (Eric Loren), the new pastor. He proves to be the sole figure to perceive the genius in Dickinson’s poems, and if life imitated Jane Austen he would have been her natural soul mate, but he is already married, to Jane (Simone Milsdochter), a perpetually sour woman who’s apparently devoted to the avoidance of all pleasure that is not strictly spiritual. When Wadsworth departs Amherst, it is a crushing blow, soon followed by Emily’s removal from the larger world—just another loss she must endure in the long journey through solitude and illness to death—and, paradoxically, posthumous fame.
“A Quiet Passion” is Davies’ work above all, a product of his singular vision (and, one might suggest, his own reclusive method), but of course he could not have realized it without able collaborators. Hoffmeister and Di Ciaula’s contributions have already been noted, but one must also mention the work of production designer Merjin Sep, art director Toon Merien, set decorator Katha Seidman and costume designer Catherine Marchand, who manage a convincing period ambience on what was obviously a modest budget, as even the fact that the film was mostly shot outside Antwerp suggests. One must even applaud the visual effects supervised by Herman Germeijs, particularly the simple but effective means by which the transformation of the characters as they age and are taken up by new actors is accomplished.
Expert performances are also essential, of course, and Nixon delivers a powerfully compelling one which—as applies to all the actors—involves, among other things, presenting Davies’ deliberately arch dialogue, very much of the period, as though it were the most natural mode of expression in the world. The others—Ehle, Carradine, Bacon, Duff, May and Loren in particular—follow suit; they come across as stiff, but in their hands the demeanor seems a true reflection of the time. The only exception in that regard is Bailey, who appears always to be putting on an act—which is doubtlessly the whole idea with Buffam, but is nonetheless somewhat distracting.
The lives of nineteenth-century writers have often been romanticized on the screen for emotional effect. What’s remarkable about “A Quiet Passion”—and this is something that it shares with Sally Wainwright’s recent BBC telefilm “To Walk Invisible” about the Bronte sisters (whose work Davies has Dickinson praise), though stylistically it took a very different approach—is that it refuses to do so. Perhaps it’s Davies’ status as a cinematic outsider that allowed him to perceive, and capture, the life of a poetic outsider so well.