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Terence Davies’ newest film A Quiet Passion is his most talky film, which also makes it my least favorite by the acclaimed English director. But considering the fact that every film I’ve seen by him at this point has been stellar, this really isn’t a problem. The massive unloading of witty verbiage made me forget I’m watching a director who’s created some of English cinema’s most incredibly visual films. Nevertheless, A Quiet Passion preserves Davies’ image-making poise. The first shot is a remarkable one. A religious headmaster orders Christians on one side of the room and atheists on the other, Emily Dickinson (the film’s main character) stands center frame in abject defiance, refusing to accept either side as right or wrong . The leitmotif is that young poet is a born contrarian, unafraid of committing to solitude in over communal faith or denial. A Quiet Passion is a powerful deconstruction of the type of countercultural idealism that turned classic writers into new age prophets.
Emily Dickinson was never afforded much acclaim while she was alive—like most great writers Emily Dickinson only became a household name after her death. Cynthia Nixon’s vivacious Emily is insecure and rebellious. She lives according to values and beliefs that don’t yet exist in American society. Her steadfast and subversive attitude were not met with the strength of a Jane Austen heroine but a resounding doubt that ultimately denigrated her public persona into a seedy outcast. Most characters in the film follow the conventions of society while inwardly despising it; Emily Dickinson fights it with her every waking breath.
If A Quiet Passion were not graced with Davies’ hair-raising mastery in cinematic image-making the film would probably only amount to a solid by-the-books biopic. Filmmakers have always found success adapting works of literature but Terence Davies, since Distant Voices, Still Lives (1980), has been one of the principle auteurs in turning the films into its own form of literature. A Quiet Passion demonstrates a ruthless, literal quality. Emily Dickinson’s violent convulsions, in her later life, are drawn out for maximum unpleasantness. There’s a confluence of formalism and realism in Davies’ works that make his brand of “realism” more appealing.
The most recurrent of Terence Davies’ observations of domestic life are the ones between families and friends (particularly happier ones). He sees feasting, singing or dancing not just as general celebratory norms, but as communal forces that subsist in every living person. What draws people to each other, what pulls them apart? In A Quiet Passion the Dickinson family are shown sundered in the family living room, spaced apart in brooding atmosphere. But as one of them plays a piano the camera slowly pans across the room, chaining the family in a single, unbroken shot. The tune reverberates more than just melodies between them. They indicate blood ties that will remain unbroken for decades to come. The rules of time and space don’t apply to Terence Davies’ films, to him a single shot has the cinematic potential (and poetic license) to span decades.
A Quiet Passion can be called a study in culture as Emily Dickinson’s influence there is unparalleled. But Davies’ always brought the dramatic focus of his films to the domestic front. Before we see her as an iconic poet we see her as a prospective young woman, and before we see her as a subversive recluse we see her as an obedient daughter and a loving sister. Sometimes it seems the film’s script can feel too clever for its own good. The film’s self-referential play-by-plays and bumptious mischievousness in its dialogue almost become audience pandering and meta-analytical. A Quiet Passion is nevertheless a wonderfully written conversational romp. Words seem move at breakneck speeds with an ease that feels almost too smooth, but the actors ( particularly Cyntha Nixon and Jennifer Ehle) are electric.
Davies films with an unsettling omniscience. The chilly atmosphere and deliberate style look beautifully (but undeniably) staged. But there’s a raw authenticity underlining the structural bravado of A Quiet Passion. It’s hard to think of a more remarkable audiovisual experience than watching a Terence Davies film (though he might also be named “Terrence”)—A Quiet Passion is a harrowing, funny and affable study on the human behind the artist. It’s hard to imagine watching another costume drama this year and appreciating it as much as this one.