A Quiet Passion comes during something of a boom-time for poetry in cinema. A biopic of Pablo Neruda is out in cinemas as I write this review, while Jim Jarmusch’s explorations of Ron Padgett’s poetry in the acclaimed Paterson finally reaches DVD. I’m happy to say then that Terence Davies’ touching tribute to the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, meets the high standards set by those aforementioned films. Taking in rebellious Dickinson’s early years, through to the self-imposed exile of her later years, A Quiet Passion is as charming and troubling as the enigmatic woman’s own poetry.
Structurally the film is a heady and surprisingly funny mixture of Dickinson’s philosophies mixed alongside passages of her infamous poetry. For my money, and I would gamble for many others too, it is the former that will enchant audiences most over the films runtime. Dickinson’s poetry is a wonder certainly (a passage spoken over scenes of a funeral procession is a standout moment of the film), but aside from that, it’s the original dialogue and banter on show here that really qualifies as genius level stuff. Wildean catfights and brutal backhanders abound in some of the most cutting and sparkling period dialogue this side of Whit Stillman’s recent Love and Friendship.
Terence Davies’ direction is superb. Of particular note are his use of long takes, in which the camera slowly swivels around a darkened parlour room give one time to reflect and immerse oneself in the very world that agitated and inspired Dickinson. As the music cuts out, one takes in all the minor details of the room and of the people, making poetic observes of us all. Cynthia Nixon gives one of the standout performances of the year so far. Don’t be surprised to see her making it to some ‘best of’ polls from the more discerning critics/publications. Nixon’s portrayal is engaging and nuanced, she expresses the joy and wit so often forgotten of Dickinson, all the while remaining keenly on the edge of despair. The inner turmoil of the great poet is immediately palpable whenever Nixon displays a disarmingly forced grin, or holds a wounded stare.
Dickinson’s initial rebellions, while certainly not insincere, do at least bear the hallmarks of a hopeful soul. However, by the final third of the film almost all hope has been extinguished as Dickinson’s continued penance towards isolating herself from societal demands (namely the sexual and religious) become harder and harder to bear. What we are left with is the model of a tragically pure artist; one who has rigour and routine but, sadly, and in her own words, no ‘life’ to speak of. The film comes full circle then when pone recalls the words of Emily’s father from early on in the film – ‘You’re alone in your rebellion’. I have recently been reading some George Orwell and was struck by a certain passage from the preface to Animal Farm. In it, Orwell states that “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is not done’ to say it.” Like all pure and true artists, Dickinson refused to bow to orthodoxy. And, as Davies film brutally captures, the price Dickinson paid for inspiring future generations to greater freedoms was a lifetime spent in largely unrecognised and largely unpoetic turmoil.
Dir: Terence Davies
Scr: Terence Davies
Featuring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff
Prd: Roy Boulter
DOP: Florian Hoffmeister
Music: Laurent Chassaigne
Country: USA, Belgium
Run time: 125 mins
A Quiet Passion is in UK cinemas 7 April