Chicago International Film Festival 2016: A Quiet Passion, by Aaron Pinkston
A Quiet Passion could be the title of most Terence Davies films, so it is particularly fun that the film called A Quiet Passion is, at least at times, an outlier for the filmmaker. Chronicling the adult life of poet Emily Dickinson (from what I can tell, the first film to take on her life), A Quiet Passion is a surprising blend of subject and filmmaker. Primarily known for deep and silently emotional dramas that tell the stories of simple people and British communities, Davies has been on a recent role with The Deep Blue Sea and Sunset Song (released earlier this year). Emily Dickinson is a fantastic subject for Davies as a strong, independent and opinionated woman. A Quiet Passion’s comedic sensibility, however, seems like new territory.
Overall, the film is much less about the events of Emily Dickinson’s life than about an understanding of her general worldview, shown through her wide-eyed independent spirit and ever-present smile. Dickinson has a much different disposition than I personally expected, especially in the hands of Davies. I’ll admit that I know very little about Dickinson. I’ve never been particularly interested in poetry and haven’t studied her at any point, so there are basically two things I know: she was unappreciated while she was alive and she lived most of her life as something of a spinster. A Quiet Passion acknowledges both of these facts, offering the dramatic thrust of the film’s second half, but absolutely debunks any idea that she was a joyless, gloomy personality.
Dickinson’s life is broken up by performances of two different actors. The film opens with Dickinson as a young woman (Emma Bell) at a highly religious boarding school for women. We see her openly challenge her teacher who has asked if she is ready to give her life to God, doing so with wit and intelligence. As she transitions into adulthood, she is played by Cynthia Nixon with a definite lust for life. She is rebellious toward the social norms of women’s roles and religion’s place, but is never abrasive. She even has a surprising sense of irony, often referring to herself as a “no-hoper” with her tongue slightly in cheek as if she had any interest of striving toward the normal societal placement of women.
But as Dickinson becomes more reclusive following the death of her father, she becomes crueler, more like the idea I had of her. She sees the world and the people around her change, lacking the moral standards she once saw in them. The film’s third act and the character’s final days is a much closer narrative to the typical Davies film, the bright comedy fades into an overall dreariness. The large tonal shifts are a bit of a bummer, but Davies knows what he’s doing—he continues to study the character even as she becomes less expressive. Nixon also steps up in these final scenes, continuing her strong performance from last year’s James White, though perhaps without the same nuance.
Despite the differences, A Quiet Passion still holds the moments of quiet beauty for which Davies is known. Early in the film, after a long comedic conversation among members of the Dickinson family, we see a complete 360 degree shot of the characters resting around the nighttime fire. Completely without dialogue or on-screen movement, the camera passes at a crawl. It doesn’t seem to have much place within the narrative, but it is a beautiful respite. Once it reaches back around to Emily, she seems to be on the edge of crying for no discernable reason. Observantly taking in this scene shows both the togetherness and solitude of the young woman’s life. Later in the film, the technique is used again, in a much different situation: Dickinson is now near the end of her life and the quietness is replaced by a character singing. It is another communal shot that comes at a transitional point in Dickinson’s life. These types of scenes wonderfully highlight Davies patience with narratives and interest in the way people place themselves among those close to them.
As someone who has rediscovered Terence Davies over the past few years, A Quiet Passion only furthers my interest. The film admittedly doesn’t have the dramatic power of the auteur’s best work, but it stands out in a crowded biopic space. I should also mention that it is genuinely funny—perhaps not a laugh-a-minute howl fest, but Dickinson’s wit is on full display. In that way, A Quiet Passion would be a nice double-feature with Whit Stillman’s recent Love & Friendship, both films of a certain stodgy costume drama style that are anything but.