Terence Davies is a filmmaker who began his career by making films that greatly reflected the words of America’s greatest poet, Emily Dickinson: “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.” If you’ve see Distant Voices, Still Life and his earliest masterpiece The Long Day Closes, the sights of life— as seen through a young Davies stand-in—are indeed too startling to make a formal narrative structure but there’s no room for complaint because the director’s fear of his father and his desire to be transported elsewhere through play, pictures or a song from his mother, are immensely felt. Davies has spent the 21st Century adapting classic works from Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth), Terence Rattigan (The Deep Blue Sea) and Lewis Grassic Gibbon (last year’s Sunset Song) which focus on the delicate place in society for a woman that exists somewhere between comfort and following one’s heart in ways that will land them in discomfort.
The combination of those two curiosities (startling compositions and gender-choice imbalances) has made Davies a fantastic fit for a biopic of Emily Dickinson. And though he follows the bone structure of a classical biopic—A Quiet Passion does span many decades—his approach is to document the ways in which Dickinson admirably brushed up against society but also in moments that showed her as equally stubborn and stuck in her ways as the most devout Christian zealot.
Davies is a classicist. And though his films feature lush cinematography—frequently attuned to how light can interrupt our day with awe at how dust falls on a bannister, for example—A Quiet Passion is certainly his stuffiest looking film he’s ever made. There are still glorious camera movements but A Quiet Passion does have a look and feel of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre. And this is less the story of Dickinson the poet than it is of a woman whose daily routine ran against societal expectations, and what joy and what cost came of that. But if you can get past the lack of a big budget period sheen and nary a scene of Dickinson reciting her most famous poems, A Quiet Passion has many splendid insights into the various hypocrisies of the American identity.
Dickinson is first introduced as a student (played in her younger years by Emma Bell) who is singled out because she doesn’t have an answer to her status with God. Those who are saved are asked to move to one side of the room and those who wish to be saved move to the other. It is only Dickinson who remains in the center of the room but it’s not because she is unsure of her relationship with God, she just sees it as having not ending through simple salvation, but in need of constant reflection and work. Although this is a very intelligent outlook it is dismissed as disruptive. Her family is summoned to take her home.
Her father (Keith Carradine) doesn’t punish her, but instead rewards her by taking her to a vocal performance that evening. The young Emily Dickinson (and her younger sister, Vinnie) are stirred that a woman is performing to open the night, but their father says, “a woman doesn’t belong on the stage.” Yet at home when Dickinson asks her father if she can be have the hours of 3 am to 6 am to write poetry—the hours before the day begins and she has regular duties about the house—her father says, “of course.” Though this is what Dickinson wants, and she looks at her father with reverence, it is the first of many instances where Dickinson navigates hypocritical beliefs, while always remaining steadfast to her own disciplined foundation of living a virtuous life.
As an adult (played by Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon), Dickinson keeps her routine of writing from witching-hour-to-sunrise, followed by the daily household chores, and the weekly attendance of church and township dances. Emily and her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) are equally transfixed by a new woman in town with the poetic name of Vyrling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and daily walks with Buffam are added to Dickinson’s routine. Buffam has a biting tongue and immense critiques of societal games of stature and marriage. Her wit and intelligence stir images of lifelong kinship within Emily and Vinnie, but where her sister differs is that though Vinnie also enjoys the company of rogue personalities, she is also forgiving if they can’t be complete revolutionaries against society; Emily’s routine in religion and in writing is so entrenched in personal righteousness that she expects the same from those she’ll put on a pedestal. When Buffam marries for stature and money, Emily resigns herself to being alone in her woman’s revolution.
It is in this moment where Davies paints his best visual stroke in A Quiet Passion: as Emily sits alone in the church at her friend’s wedding, she does not join everyone outside to meet the new bride and groom; the camera moves from above in the church, Emily in isolation, and the separate lines of the white pews merge into one plane as the camera lands at Emily’s level. From this point forward, A Quiet Passion reveals itself to be chiefly concerned with Emily’s resolution to be alone. Everyone else is a hypocrite, but though there’s obvious love for Dickinson, Davies doesn’t show her as a complete saint—though she desires poetic affirmations from the married preacher in town, she refuses to acknowledge that she also desires him as a partner yet Emily causes an immense familial rift over her brother’s (Duncan Duff) infidelity—but instead as someone who marched to her own drum. And though there was much to admire about her resolution she once states to her sister-in-law (Jodhi May) in solace: “You have a life, I have a routine.”
However, Davies never truly faults Dickinson for her routine nor her occasional dips into hypocrisy. There is an immense reverence for how she sticks to what she believes regardless of potential consequences. In tackling a period of American history where its Puritan roots were butting up against more rebellious thought, Davies has made a biopic that’s not routine. There is no aha moment for when she wrote the famous lines, “Because I wouldn’t stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me”—instead A Quiet Passion is about both the glory and the pain that comes from a quiet and personal rebellion.
Despite the overall stuffiness of A Quiet Passion, Davies’ script is frequently a delight of dialogue and Nixon and Ehle are a perfect match. Vinnie and Emily are in a similar stature as older unmarried women, but Vinnie is able to bend to human frailty and Emily became frail from being as firm with her way of living beliefs as the Puritans were with their religious beliefs. Saying you’re saved or that you hope to be saved is much easier than putting in constant work. But doing what’s easy does not stir greatness. And greatness reserves little room for other concentrations.
A Quiet Passion opens in select cities April 14.