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Terence Davies’ newest film A Quiet Passion is his most talky film, which probably makes it my least favorite by the acclaimed English director. But considering that every film by the guy has been nothing short of stellar, this never proves to be 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. She, in response to a culture not accepting of feminine autonomy, is a woman displaced in time.
If A Quiet Passion were not graced with Davies’ hair-raising mastery in cinematic image-making the film would probably only amount to a solidly crafted 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 not uncommon to the auteur. Emily Dickinson’s violent convulsions, which she suffers later in life, are drawn out for maximum unpleasantness and agonizing discomfort. There’s a confluence of formalism and realism in Davies’ works that make his brand of realness more appealing.
The most recurrent of Terence Davies’ observations of domesticity are the ones between families and friends (particularly the happier ones). He sees feasting, singing or dancing not just as general celebratory norms, but as communal infrastructure. In one unforgettable moment A Quiet Passion shows the Dickinson family sundered in the family living room; spaced apart in a brooding and inactive portrait. 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 unspoken melodies between them. Instead the somber melody annexes blood ties to a pedigree and congregation spanning a lifetime.
A Quiet Passion can be called a study in culture and counterculture because, as we know, Dickinson’s own influence in that subject is unparalleled. Yet, Davies’ acumen seems to abide on the domestic front, where Emily—a proud academic—lived among her community as an unsociable debutante. Davies’ films always elucidate a desire for a time long past, but the distance he places us at in A Quiet Passion, whether it’s due to the sophisticated language or bygone mores, are made pervasive by the way the English director so eloquently renders heritage and antiquity with transparency and feeling: Emily’s primal, sexual desires are expressed in the film with breathtaking eloquence and sensitivity.
Contrasting A Quiet Passion’s astute visual form is its irascible, wordy screenplay, consisting of comedic play-by-plays and mischievousness. The script almost becomes audience pandering and meta-analytical but A Quiet Passion, nevertheless, is a wonderfully written conversational yarn (in the similar Austinian tradition of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship). Fiery debates and exchanging pleasantries move at breakneck speeds with an ease that feels almost too smooth, but the actors here (particularly Cyntha Nixon and Jennifer Ehle) are playful in their verbosity and utterly captivating.
But ultimately the star here is Davies, who conducts A Quiet Passion with an unsettling omniscience. The chilly atmosphere and deliberate style look beautifully (but undeniably) staged. And yet a raw authenticity underlines the man’s vastly compelling and formal showmanship, giving the movie gravity alongside its striking visual form. Both subversively funny and boasting a trenchant wit, A Quiet Passion is unlike any film Terence Davies has previously made, its characters burst with the conventional wisdom and anarchic passion, remarking on love and life outside of ghoulish formalities. Terence Davies orchestrates it on their terms, adopting a similar wisdom and anarchy. A Quiet Passion, neither romantic or melodramatic, approaches love from the depths of one’s soul, understanding better than most films that romance is just a response to life’s interminable loneliness.