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Terence Davies’ newest film A Quiet Passion is his most talky film, which probably makes it the least characteristic of the acclaimed English director. But considering that every film by the director by this point has been nothing short of stellar, this never proves to be a problem. The massive unloading of witty verbiage allowed 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 remarkably composed 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 lowly 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 Davies’ directorial style. 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 the sullen ticking of a clock resounds the camera slowly pans around the dark, candlelit room, chaining the family in a single unbroken shot. The visual tone of the scene speaks to time’s quiet and subtle motion in the Dickinson household.
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 seems to resigned to what he knows best, domesticity and social identity, where Emily—a proud academic—lived among her community as an unsociable debutante. Davies’s films always evoke a nostalgic desire for a time long past, and the distance he establishes between viewer and subject in A Quiet Passion, whether due to sophisticated language or bygone mores, only further demonstrates the English director’s ability to render heritage and family as universally identifiable norms. Emily’s primal, sexual desires are too expressed in the film with emotional transparency, dramatic sensitivity and real feeling.
Of course, 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 infectiously playful and razor-sharp.
Ultimately, the real star here is Davies, who conducts A Quiet Passion with an unsettling omniscience. The atmosphere of mortality and cruel omnipresence over the fate of the Dickinson household allows this beautifully staged family drama to lift above its conventional dramatic setting. Both subversively funny and boasting a trenchant wit, A Quiet Passion is unlike any film Terence Davies has previously made, the film’s characters burst with the conventional wisdom and anarchic passion, remarking on love and life outside of tedious formality. Terence Davies orchestrates such bravado on similar terms, adopting a similar wisdom and anarchy in his filmmaking sensibility. 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 another revolution against life’s interminable loneliness.