A Quiet Passion – Film Review
Director: Terence Davies
Writer: Terence Davies
Stars: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff
Reviewed by David Turpin
Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion is a corrective in two senses. Firstly, it’s largely a return to form after Davies’ last film, the occasionally ravishing but often muddled and compromised Sunset Song (2015), which it has followed with uncharacteristic swiftness. Secondly, it’s a refutation of the popular image of its subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson. While Dickinson is often lionised and/or parodied as a tremulous recluse, whose exquisitely odd poetry is an exact reflection of her personality, this film presents a Dickinson – excellently played by Cynthia Nixon – whose presence in the world is not a simple ‘acting out’ of her most popular verses. As such, A Quiet Passion pushes, in its own subtle way, against the tendency to reduce the lives of artists to the enactment of simplified (mis)readings of their work.
The familiar elements of the Dickinson biography are all here, and still somehow, all surprising – from the domineering presence of her father (an aptly cast Keith Carradine) to the gentler figure of her beloved sister Lavinia, or ‘Vinnie’ (a touching turn by Jennifer Ehle). The many Dickinson aficionados hung up on her relationship with her sister-in-law Susan will find the latter finely played by Davies veteran Jodhi May, although the director’s characteristic delicacy means there is little scope for the retrospective sexualising of this relationship that has typically been used to digest the interpretation-resistant Dickinson into a pat and ahistorical narrative of repressed sexual identity.
In fact, the dominant theme of A Quiet Passion is not so much repression as it is suppression – or perhaps more accurately, sublimation. By giving us a three dimensional Dickinson who engages with her society – often quite forcefully – while at the same time writing verse that seems to emerge from pure isolation, Davies and Nixon step into the gap between the Dickinson who was, and the Dickinson who has been created by her posthumous readers. Below the surface, the film raises fascinating questions regarding the way in which the sublimation of the artist’s emotional life makes her work less an expression of her experience (the popular reading) than it is a second, concurrent life unto itself.
A Quiet Passion thus sets itself the difficult task of rendering – or rather, implying – interiority on screen. Although the film is never less than controlled on a scene-by-scene basis, its preoccupation with the invisible means that its frequent shifts in tone must often be attributed to an interior experience of Dickinson that is not ‘in’ the film, but which we are to understand resides below its surface. It’s an interesting proposition, not least because it underscores how Davies’ preoccupation with interior spaces conflicts with his status as a perennial ‘outsider’. For this reason, A Quiet Passion is perhaps best viewed alongside The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000) – two other films in which this most English of filmmakers has looked ‘outside’ to American subjects.
A Quiet Passion isn’t as striking a film – or as startling a reframing of a popular television actress – as The House of Mirth. It’s too bitty, and perhaps too mannered, for that. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of Davies’ status as one of the few remaining British auteurs to survive the aggressive dumbing down of the late 1990s and continue furrowing his own singular path. Even if A Quiet Passion doesn’t wholly satisfy, it’s still a privilege to have him.