An empathetic look at a still life in “A Quiet Passion”

Cynthia Nixon (at left) and Jennifer Ehle in the new Terence Davies biopic “A Quiet Passion,” in which the former portrays American poet Emily Dickinson

Terence Davies has never met an opportunity for a tableau vivant he did not like. Groups of objects, or actors, or both take up a shot and his camera lingers on them for seconds that feel like minutes. “Take a look,” he seems to urge you. “What is the relationship between these things?” Davies, one of the finest living British directors, has made a career out of sensuousness marked by simplicity. Even as his works often look back to distant periods, he is rarely ornate. Six years ago, he directed the brilliantly myopic “The Deep Blue Sea,” an excellent, literal manifestation of a woman’s descent into lonely despair after two foiled relationships. He restricted much of the drama, like the play it is based on, to her post-war London apartment. Whether it was an elegiac shot of a window, a ruinous fireside or a desultory kitchen, the tableaus were arresting, and depressing. This year he turned his camera to the tableaus of the mid-19th century in a story of American poet Emily Dickinson.

I never planned on writing about “A Quiet Passion” for this column. Not because the film is faulty. But this unsurprisingly polarising film is exactly the sort that people who scoff at period dramas, or literary films, would imagine. There are multiple scenes in houses, gloomy and darkened rooms, plots that seem to never approach anything resembling climax. Its tone is one that vacillates between reticent and curt. “A Quiet Passion” is all of these things. It is also the best 2017 release I have seen.

Beyond modern criticism’s dismissive idea of the biopic as a vehicle for acting mimicry or a naked play for awards by creators, such films–and especially those with artists as their subjects–give us a chance to watch a filmmaker interrogate, and even identify with, the life of another.

In watching Terence Davies’ account of poet Emily Dickinson’s life, then, one cannot help but think that Davies is reaching across century, continent and genre, to acknowledge some kind rapport, some idea of the kindred, between him and the reclusive poet. Davies pulls the curtain back beyond history’s slight deification of her as a symbol of piety, to reveal something more irascible.

Emily is a victim of her era’s stultifying view of women. It is not that she abhors domesticity or piety but she detests that it is expected of her. And so, her life as a contrarian is borne out of her contempt for the expected. Of course, a life borne out of being contrarian is a life of isolation.

The film manifests the gloom and loneliness and stillness of that life. The movie is languorous, glacial even. The first 25 minutes, especially, are content to observe things from a distance, embracing the sort of disconnect a life observed, from afar, creates. At first, it is easy to mistake this reserve for lack of interest. In a brief scene Emily’s father complains about the state of a dinner plate. Cool as a cucumber, Emily picks it up, glances at it and then smashes it on the floor. “Now it is no longer dirty,” she intones. Mr Dickinson suppresses both a grimace and a smile. The camera lingers on them for a bit. Another film might have shot this in regular reverse shots, cutting away from the smash and playing up the bizarreness of the moment. Davies shoots it all from a low angle, with no cuts, and we see both actors at once. And then the scene gently dissolves into another, as if to suggest that nothing odd has happened.

Like much of Emily Dickinson’s own poetry, Davies opts for creating mood over providing information. He suggests things instead of explicating them. At first, it muddles the audience, until we realise that this is no puzzle but a mood piece. “A Quiet Passion” is not working to make us understand Emily, for Emily cannot understand herself. This Emily is no heroine, then, but simultaneously a banshee, recluse, jester, charmer and martyr. He does not make it easy on us. Neither does Cynthia Nixon, who plays her. Her performance is direct, abrasive, difficult, beguiling and challenging, all at once.

In one of the film’s heightened moments, she has an argument with her sister. “O, you are a wretched creature. Will you ever achieve anything?” For a brief moment the line seems directed at her sister until the camera shifts, slowly, to reveal her speaking into a mirror. The line seems more theatrical than colloquial, which is the point. Emily’s entire life is in her home, turning incidental domestic squabbles into things of gargantuan import. It’s the greatest tragedy of the story that Davies wisely, and impressively, does not comment on or commodify for his audience. Emily herself, as played by Nixon, seems keenly aware of her penchant for the overdramatic. It seems to be her only solace in a world that she cannot be a part of.

For Davies, Emily is a creature stubborn to a fault. She will not comprise her art for a man, and the perfunctory reviews a loved one gives her poem seem to make her realise that she cannot have both. So, she takes solace in her art and in her home, shirking the hypocrisy of society for the shroud of loneliness. At the end of “A Quiet Passion,” one might be inclined to ask: “Was it worth it?” Was Emily’s years of reclusion worth it for the excellent poetry she created out of it? Dickinson’s quiet life has become a sort of a mark of excellence. And yet, in one scene Emily’s sister chides her about an affection for the county priest. “You hardly know the man, except through his sermons,” she says. In the same way, Davies seems to chide us for our modern deification of Dickinson, whom we know only through her poems. Davies’ thesis seems to be that she, like us all, is ultimately unknowable. We can never get inside the mind, so we must subsist with the tableau vivant. A still life look at a still life. The picture it presents is pretty at first glance, but a closer looks reveals its cracks. And the effect is devastating.

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