Terence Davies, the director of Sunset Song (2015) and The Deep Blue Sea (2011) has never been interested in Hollywood and rarely casts A-listers in his films. Known for making dramas for a select audience, he is a man “in love with the very idea of cinema”. This year, Davies brought onto the big screen the 19th-century reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson with the central performance from Sex and the City‘s star Cynthia Nixon.
Emily had an interest in writing poetry and letters since she was a teenager (young Emily is portrayed by Emma Bell); she gave up the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary while trying to understand herself, her writing and, above all, her relationship with God. At first, the young Emily is seen as a bubbly, full of passion and unorthodox woman, for whom the family is the centre of her life. The unspoiled bond with her supportive father Edward Dickinson (sublime performance by Keith Carradine) and sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) influences her poetry deeply. Terence Davies found himself the perfect actor to play the young poet; she is such a natural performer.
Time passes by; now a mature woman, Emily (Cynthia Nixon) slowly loses her family picture perfect as her brother Austin and aunt Elizabeth disapprove of her modern way of belief in God and – when it comes to her aunt – her spending too much time on her poetry. With a deteriorating family relationship, her writing drastically changes as well as her well-being; she isolates herself from the outside world, counting solely on her sister’ and father’s companionship. With all that, she slowly turns into “a poet of loneliness”. In addition to that, her poetry goes unnoticed by major publications, and as a result, Emily becomes reluctant to share her work with the public save for her closest friends – apparently, upon her death, Dickinson’s family came across 1,800 poems, which were later published.
While living away from the public life, Emily finds pleasure in Miss Vryling Buffam’s (a brilliant performance by Catherine Bailey, she added a great sparkle to the film) company – a smiley, outspoken and cynical neighbour, with whom she often chats about existence and love; this unusual friendship affects Emily later in life as Miss Vryling decides to marry and leave the city.
From everything that we see on the screen, we come to a realisation that Emily Dickinson was a tragic character who desperately relied on her family. A person who could not face the reality of the world and tried hard to deal with the patriarchal society of the 19th century America. Terence Davies conveys it in a beautiful and subtle way; sometimes the film feels like a theatre play with its overlong dialogues, but I didn’t mind it, I myself love theatre. Davies conducts his actors like a conductor conducts its music; Nixon is excellent in the role of Emily Dickinson, she balances the poet’s vulnerability, anger and sense of humour very well. There is no over-dramatization, there is only her sensitive performance.
As I didn’t know much about Emily Dickinson’s poetry, it was good to listen to some of it; her poems are read by Nixon over some scenes. The first part of the film – when we meet the young Emily – is happy, light and easy to follow, while the second part paints a dark and at times depressing picture of the poet. I like the fact that Davies chronologically followed Emily’s adult life; besides that, he not only concentrated on her poetry and her emotional state, but also on her illness and – partly – death (she suffered kidney failure).
The film shines with the amazing production design by Merijn Sep, with colourful set decorations by Ilse Willocx and dashing costumes by Catherine Marchand – it is hard not to admire the silky gowns. The general camera work is good and steady – much of the film is set indoors so it might give off a claustrophobic feeling to some, but overall, it is a well-filmed production.
A Quiet Passion is an honest, comely and subtle story about an unappreciated poet; it is also a tale of a tortured soul who searches for the meaning of her own existence. I really loved the film and I do believe that it is one of the best Davies’ work to date.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Music Box Films & Soda Pictures