starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Keith Carradine
written and directed by Terence Davies
by Walter Chaw Terence Davies doesn't make a lot of movies but he does make masterpieces fairly regularly. A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the notoriously reclusive Emily Dickinson, is his latest. His portrait of the "Belle of Amherst" captures the poet (Cynthia Nixon, transcendent) as a woman who finds no succour in the petrified pieties of her rigid New England society, turning inwards instead to the dubious pleasures of family and verse. She looks for approval from both. Her father (Keith Carradine) suffers her streak of rebellion. There's the sense that he sees in her the continuation of his own modest progressivism, indicated by the quiet approval he gives to his children's mockery of his silly sister (Annette Badland), his acceptance of Emily's rejection of a religious education, and his indulging of Emily's desire to write in the small hours of the night. One senses that these witching hours are her room of one's own. The tableaux of Emily swaddled in the purple cocoon of night is not just a romantic notion, but evocation, too, of Davies's deep consciousness of colour in his pictures, pointing to how these early, idealistic moments are contrasted by the sick yellows, whites, and browns that populate the period after her father's death. He breaks that mourning with an impressionistic interlude that opens upon a green bower, then Emily bathed in firelight in something like the physical/spiritual ecstasy that would be denied her--that she perhaps denied herself for fear and self-loathing--all her life. He closes a door on her, slowly. It's a passage that expresses the tension of the film's title: Emily finds deliverance only upon a deeper metaphysical implosion.
I love a moment where Emily confesses to her sister (Jennifer Ehle) that she doesn't know why she's just verbally destroyed an erstwhile suitor, which Davies scores only with the steady crackle of fire in a hearth. Not long after, the strange pains she's been experiencing are diagnosed as terminal. He understands Dickinson as an artist in a constant state of immolation. The picture would fit perfectly with any of Jane Campion's word-drunk films about writers and readers. It's that lovesick for prose, that intoxicated with its possibilities and limitations. Poetry has the power to deliver sublimity, but it doesn't sustain the physical body. I love John Keats. Campion's Bright Star, A Quiet Passion's nearest analogue, provides an emotionally-resonant tribute to another doomed poet, crippled by insecurity and robbed by it of the little moments of happiness that buffer life's extended periods of disappointment and worry. As time strips Emily of her family (a moment where she watches her father's body carried away in procession from her bedroom window is so muted and sharp that it leaves a physical impression), she retreats more completely into her writing. Increasingly, Davies lights her by lamplight, or the light coming through cracks in a doorway, or the diffuse late-afternoon sun that gets past the curtains. When she discovers her brother (Duncan Duff) engaged in an affair with a married woman, she discovers a fiery piety she once rejected. It's too on the nose that she reflects on this, though, and if there's a flaw in A Quiet Passion it's that Davies's screenplay has a propensity to narrate at times. The argument could be made, however (and I'm making it), that it's in keeping with Dickinson's character (what we surmise of it) that she would be given to this variety of verbose introspection.
A Quiet Passion pauses twice early on, perhaps in reference to one of Dickinson's best-known poems ("My life closed twice before its close"). The first is to offer a time-lapse in a series of portraits of the family, dour, before a static frame, with the young cast morphing into their older counterparts. The second time is a series of still colour images from the recently-inaugurated Civil War, complete with the devastating death tolls of the major battles depicted. Both illustrate Emily's essential detachment from the world. Time goes by, she watches it. Steadily, it embitters her. If this were a work of the Brontës, whom Emily so admires, her painful illness and lonesome death would be a metaphor for that little rock hardening inside her heart, year on year. Nixon plays Dickinson's life before her illness with Thoreau's "quiet desperation." She has an insistence about her that makes what she doesn't say as urgent as what she does. The biggest surprise of A Quiet Passion is how funny Nixon is. Look at a scene where she invites a minister she has a crush on--and his absolutely humourless, stentorian wife--to tea. She offers the tea, is rebuffed. She changes her offer to lemonade, then freezes as a variety of responses go through her head. She settles for a glance at her sister. It's perfect. In the next scene, walking in the garden, she shares some of her poetry with the object of her unrequited affections, and the carriage of yearning expressed by her whole body is palpably, utterly, familiar.
All of the film is like that. The formality of the language serves as counterpoint to the recognizability of the emotions it tries to mask. Like Dickinson's poetry. Just like. She wrote nearly 1800 poems in her lifetime; only a handful saw publication during it. Not until 1955 was an unabridged collection of them published. One of my favourites:
You left me, sweet, two legacies,
A legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had He the offer of;
You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.
Davies, like Campion before him (and maybe Ken Russell with his musician films, or Bernard Rose with his Immortal Beloved), understands the subterranean rhythms of his artist's creations. A Quiet Passion is not only a good biopic, it's a fair bit of literary criticism as well. It understands the thanatopsis that drove Dickinson's work. The thrust of its narrative is moored by death and loss, always alone. When their mother dies, Emily and her sister hold her between them, but she dies alone all the same, as the rest of us do. This is a beautiful film, really, and possessed of a structure as tightly adhered to as Dickinson's work. Her 1800 pieces, after all, are a better autobiography than most if one knows how to decipher them.
Davies is best when working in these spaces between what's being said and what is meant. He operates, one might say, in the liminal place where interpretation happens--a lovely feat that has about it the feeling of the sublime. At the end, when Emily dies and her casket is carried away (we watch it go from above and hear her two most-repeated poems read by Nixon over the images), there is the sense that the cruellest irony of Dickinson's life is that she found acclaim posthumously through the careful excavation of her crippling loneliness and agoraphobia. I was reminded of the giant Dickinson puppet that plays in the middle of Being John Malkovich: the ultimate indignity for a person like Dickinson, and a brilliant movie's best visual joke. A Quiet Passion is a film about writers, how their horror of discovery is in eternal conflict with their desire for discovery. It shows creation as an act of yearning, ultimately, the only optimistic thing in lives so often indicated by depression and mental illness. Davies's films are artworks about the facets of want. Want manifests physically and emotionally, in action and in speech, loudly and sometimes softly. A Quiet Passion is acerbic at times. It's tough. And a lot like Dickinson's work, it makes the smart and the critically lonely feel less alone. Programme: Masters