A Quiet Passion: Emily Dickinson and Solitary Transcendence

**** (out of 4)

Towards the end of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a new “biopic” of the poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), there’s a shot in which Dickinson is shown lying on her bed. The mood is not a relaxed one; she’s just been struck by a debilitating series of seizures, and in the next scene, she’ll end up passing away for good. What’s striking about this moment, however, is the combination of the anguish on Dickinson’s face, the foreshortened way her legs stand out in the foreground, and the way the bed fills the center of the frame: taken together, the whole image provides a very close imitation of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s famous depiction of a dead Jesus in Cristo morto. It’s almost as though Dickinson, like Christ, has reached some form of transcendence through death.

Alas, if there’s just one thing Davies’ take on Dickinson teaches you, it’s that this transcendence is only attained after a lifetime of emotional and spiritual agony. Granted, this may not be immediately obvious; when Dickinson first appears, after all, she flaunts a biting, zestful wit that would’ve put Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzy Bennet to shame. Dickinson is the kind of person who flatly notes that her contemporary Henry Wadsworth Longfellow likes “stating the obvious,” repeatedly joins her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) in poking fun at men’s misguided sense of superiority (“Are men fearless? In war, yes. In religion, always. In love? Never.”), and takes no shame in talking back to elders. She’s a self-proclaimed lover of “truth,” and in that spirit, her snark carries a frankness that openly defies the vacuous mores of her bourgeois peers.

Yet for all her vibrancy, Davies’ Dickinson is a poet continually haunted by limitations and snubs. For her refusal to participate in organized religion, she is publicly shamed out of her studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her efforts to publish poetry are limited by her editor’s belief that “no woman can write good literature.” Her comrades in sass – Buffam, her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) – abandon her for husbands, all while she struggles to contain unrealizable sexual desires for both the local reverend (Eric Loren) and other women. And her family life proves anything but fulfilling: her parents’ (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) untimely deaths scar her with brutal reminders of her mortality, while her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) alternates between sparring with and humiliating her over her views on women’s rights. By the end of the movie, all of these factors have left Emily deeply embittered, and every tiny failing she sees in others becomes an excuse to launch into invective that’s reflective of her own deep-seated frustration with life.

It’s in the context of these two opposing sides to Dickinson that the movie suggests her poetry ought to be read. Voice-over recitations of her poems are spread throughout the film, and their timing makes it sound as though they were providing narrative commentary: as just one striking example, her poem about fighters “who win, and nations do not see” is read over a Civil War montage. You eventually get the sense that she writes partially out of some underlying desire to uncover and distill the emotional essence of everything happening around her. Yet at the same time, she clearly also sees poetry as an outlet, just like how the characters in Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives used songs as a way of coping with the misery of daily life. In a sense, Dickinson’s enigmatic statement that “my poetry is solace for the eternity that lies around us” is a summation of these two divergent functions: for her, poetry represents a deeply personal yet exquisitely painful way of reckoning with both the beauty and limitations of earthly existence, all while inescapable death looms in the distance. [1]

Davies himself has always been one of the most poetic of filmmakers. Here, he abandons the impressionistic style so characteristic of earlier works (e.g. The Long Day Closes) for an approach that masterfully creates an atmosphere of stifled expression. For one, the long-take-prone camera rarely gives us an image of anything beyond the confines of Dickinson’s house, which is itself decorated with a surface grandeur evocative of Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence). The lighting, moreover, gradually grows darker throughout the course of the movie; by the end, in keeping with her divided nature, Dickinson’s face is often a perfect split between light and shadow, as though she were a 19th-century version of Two-Face. And then there are the telling gestures that Davies repeatedly makes with the camera: he uses the same top-down angle to depict both Dickinson’s funeral procession and her mental fantasy of a suitor climbing up the stairs, and during two separate family gatherings at the beginning and end of the story, he deploys a slow 360-degree pan shot that each time finishes by landing on Dickinson’s distressed face.

The real gem in this movie, however, is Nixon’s performance. Her powerhouse interpretation gives us a searingly intimate portrait of a woman torn between repressed desire and unmitigated rage. It’s not always pleasant to watch – as The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane puts it, Nixon “takes few pains to sweeten the woman she portrays” – but the tormented ardor that runs through her every gesture and expression always leaves you fascinated, and she easily makes up for the awkwardness of some of Davies’ dialogue. Many biopics flail because they cover their subjects with unneeded gloss; biopics of artists are especially susceptible to annoying “mad genius” tropes. With Nixon, A Quiet Passion steers clear of all such clichés. All you see is an ordinary person who suffered far more than she deserved – and who in doing so unknowingly attained the best kind of immortality.

***

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Keith Carradine, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff

Running Time: 126 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic elements, disturbing images, and brief suggestive material.”

Produced by: Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos

Written and Directed by: Terence Davies

***

[1] You could say that this is also true of Davies himself. The themes he teases out in Dickinson’s life are very much like those treated in his more directly autobiographical earlier works – repression, loneliness, sexuality, the emptiness of religion, and so forth. Davies and Dickinson, as The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has pointed out, are in many ways truly kindred spirits.