An excellent central performance and razor sharp direction does justice to the life and death of a prodigious American poet

Aurelien Noblet on Terence Davies’ ‘A Quiet Passion’ (2016)

The third film of English director Terence Davies, a veteran of the period drama, he continues to impress when operating within this genre, especially when compared to recent, more conventional films featuring past centuries. Davies films are immaculate and razor-sharp; with his latest, the director has reached artistic maturation.

One suspects Davies to be a feminist; women who have suffered from patriarchal oppression are a recurrent theme throughout his films. In his two previous features, the excellent The Deep Blue Sea (2011) and equally magnificent Sunset Song (2015), both his heroines are driven by a palpable passion which frees them from the constraints they are subjected to, but ultimately drives them towards unfortunate consequences. A Quiet Passion does not fail to inspire in those terms, as Davies introduces us to Emily Dickinson, a young woman whose taste for gender equality, righteousness and poetry are going to push her further into a pit of unrecognised artistry.

This is an ambitious cradle-to-grave project, giving the film an epic scale and deeper emotional impact, made all the more tragic by the fact that Dickinson was not recognised while she was alive. Dickinson comes from a wealthy, Christian family in Massachusetts, enjoying a quiet life in the countryside. However, she immediately stands out from the family, refusing to kneel before God or take interest in marriage. Instead, she is wedded to words, manipulating them in the form of poetry, something many consider a pastime rather than a life achievement; she will stubbornly spend the rest of her life trying to prove the naysayers wrong.

Like many of Davies films, A Quiet Passion works as a whole rather than as segmented pieces: the film is a slow-burning flame that resonates long after the credits roll and we recall the life and death of the characters. The world that surrounds Emily is particularly dense and full of life, yet feels incredibly intimate due to restricted spaces; most of the film takes place in the same house and often in the same rooms. Liveliness is expressed through the art of conversation rather than multiple, meaningless characters we may find in, for example, a Michael Bay film. This is a masterclass in language, and any etymologist would be delighted to hear anachronistic words, way past their expiry date, spoken in such beautiful crafted conversation. Literature devotee or not, you cannot help but find yourself absorbed by the flow of words that each member of the cast interprets with brio, particularly Cynthia Nixon‘s welcomed light-hearted rapport with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), even if it is not quite on par with last years Love & Friendship.

Frequently during the film, we hear Emily as a voiceover reciting one of her poems which, added to impeccable compositions (thanks to the cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister who also worked on The Deep Blue Sea) and the serenity of the countryside, these sequences are bequeathed in a timeless texture. Emily is a believer, but rather than be servile, she strives to remain in control of her life. It is through her poetry that she expresses her desire for freedom; it is this burning desire and artistic faith that prevents the film from dragging and ultimately boring its audience. Davies has turned 19th Century American into a sharply observed and witty tale.

We all know Cynthia Nixon from HBO’s Sex & The City; a role such as Miranda Hobbs is so memorable that it may seem difficult for us to overcome the image of an actor. But Nixon was a Broadway actress and more recently she has proven herself to be a real powerhouse in James White(2016), in which she plays a mother dying of cancer. Nixon has proved to be an incredibly talented and versatile actress and here she excels.

A Quiet Passion is not only a transcending portrait of the prodigious American poet, but also of a woman ahead of her time whose tragedy has been brilliantly brought to fruition by Davies.

A Quiet Passion is available in the UK now.

Aurélien Noblet

By Aurélien Noblet

Aurelien Noblet is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in London. He earned a BA in Film Studies from King's College London.