By John Duncan Talbird.
Terrance Davies’ most recent film, A Quiet Passion, is a strange drama. It is a biopic and a period piece, an adaptation without a source text, an homage, and a fiercely original work. Most of the action takes place inside the walls of Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts and its environs. But despite its title and locale, this is anything but a quiet film. There are schizophrenic tone changes and an ongoing violence that simmers just at the surface. Davies pries off the exterior walls of Dickinson’s home to show us the anguish of a reclusive artist. Late in the film Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) yells at her sister Vinnie (in a quietly affecting performance by Jennifer Ehle), “I will not be pitied; it makes me repulsive.” Immediately after, she shouts, with even more force, at her own reflection: “Oh, you wretched creature! Will you not achieve anything?” putting the lie to the often cherished tale of the reclusive genius happily penning poems to posterity. There is a lot of suffering here, but also a lot of light, a lot of play and exploration. Directly before this scene, as Emily confronts the news that her best friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) has just accepted a man’s offer of marriage and will be leaving Amherst, she promises her friend, “I will confront everything.”
We open the film on a young Emily (Emma Bell) at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary amongst other students. The head mistress asks those who have been saved to move to the right and those who have not been saved “but wish to be saved” to move to the left. Emily is the only student who moves in neither direction and after a tense exchange concerning the theological question of the best way to be in the world and to prepare for the next, the head mistress pronounces Emily “a no-hoper.” Subsequently, her father, sister, and brother come to take her back home to Amherst to live for the rest of her life. This opening scene sets up the type of person Dickinson is and would come to be: Someone with deep, personal religious convictions and yet opposed to pedantry, self-righteousness, and the perfunctory routine.
Although this film is set in the nineteenth century, Davies rejects many of the conventions of this type of period piece even while he plays a sly lip service to them. All the men and women of this milieu of landed gentry go everywhere in coat and tie, dress, and parasol. Except, unlike any number of Jane Austin adaptations, the dresses and bonnets and coats look lived in, are dingy sometimes, seem – as is more historically accurate – that they haven’t been cleaned as often we expect these days. There is a charming scene of a dance and, unlike all those Austin adaptations, people dance in a home in which furniture is placed and, as a result, they bump into each other and look awkward as they attempt to waltz in a space meant to be lived in. When these characters serve tea, the glasses clink clumsily as they struggle with heavy pots. Davies’ attention to his interiors rivals Wes Anderson’s but without the fey whimsy. In modern realistic film, the majority of interiors, especially in art films, are on location, but Davies’ films seem to be really lived in, seem to picture places that truly belong to the characters. Not only in A Quiet Passion, but in such locations as the lovers’ apartment in The Deep Blue Sea (2011) or the young couple’s cabin in Sunset Song (2015), these interiors seem to have been inhabited for a much longer time than the two-hour running time of the typical film.
Part of the living, breathing quality of these rooms is the way in which they’re filmed. Davies is the master of the slow pan. There is a scene in A Quiet Passion which runs the circumference of a nighttime room, the family sitting by the fire – reading, sewing, writing, lost in thoughts. Nixon reads the words of one of Dickinson’s poems in voice-over:
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die.
After the camera makes its circuit of the room, Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon) asks Emily to play a hymn which leads Mother to reminisce about a boy she knew who died at the age of eighteen. Many of Dickinson’s poems are offered in this way throughout the film. They seem to grace the action, to glance at it and speed past into the cosmos. All, except for the last one spoken as Dickinson’s coffin is carried to her grave. Of course it’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” What else could it be?
Davies has created a remarkable film, similar in a way to Jim Jarmusch’s recent Paterson (2016) though with a completely different tone. These films capture what the writing life is like, they’re contemplative and quiet even amidst their sorrow and play and invention. They reveal writing as not just putting pen to paper, but a way of being in the world. They’re unhurried in the development of their story arcs; in fact, to many mainstream audiences they’ll probably not seem to have story arcs. They’re far superior to the typical biopic of famous artists – Pollock (2000), Sylvia (2003) – because they recognize that creating art is not just suffering and obsession, but there is also pleasure to it, a way of enduring the hours, making sense of the world. A Quiet Passion can be messy and meandering. The plot is sometimes elliptical, important events take place off-stage with barely a passing mention. This is not new to Davies; he has often seemed more interested in moments than in plots, in the play of light and darkness off an interior or a face rather than the “and then, and then” of narrative.
In addition to the cinematography and settings, Davies is clearly very interested in working with actors. Catherine Bailey is effervescent and Jennifer Ehle anchors much of the action with her subtle, hushed performance. Keith Carradine is a commanding presence as the family patriarch, a stern but loving figure who clearly takes pride in his intelligent and willful children even if he doesn’t completely understand them. He says early to Emily at an opera, “It’s disgraceful to see a woman on stage.” Carradine, with this performance and his recent supporting role in the first season of the TV show Fargo (2014), seems to be in the midst of a late-career renaissance similar to the one that Christopher Plummer went through a few years ago. I think he’s better than he’s ever been and can’t wait to see him in whatever he appears in next.
Davies’ leading women though are where he shines as a director of actors. Throughout his career he has nurtured brilliant performances from a number of actresses such as Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth (2000) and Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea. Cynthia Nixon is no exception. Her Emily shows delight in the witty duels of words she plays with her siblings and best friend. And she depicts her pain with equal fervor, not just the mental distress of loneliness, of one who didn’t see the accolades she sensed was her due, but also the physical agony of a woman being killed slowly by Bright’s disease. We see the nighttime convulsions in which Emily beats the bed with her entire body, a rhythmic sound that goes on almost too long to bear. And we see her death throes in the arms of her weeping brother, her sister standing by helplessly, Nixon’s face contorted into a desk mask. For a moment, before she slips away, Nixon’s face becomes Edvard Munch’s The Scream which was painted less than a decade after Dickinson’s death. These two 19th-century artists who lived in different nations separated by thousands of miles were seers. They sensed the horror and malaise – even in “polite society” – which would only become more pronounced and apparent in the horrors of the 20th century (there is a montage, Nixon speaking in voice-over, Matthew Brady’s famous photographs of Civil War carnage, the body count superimposed over color-tinted dead bodies). Despite this grim knowledge, both Dickinson and Munch were aware of the beauty this planet has to offer, aware of the importance of spirituality and love. Terence Davies also has this dual awareness which can be demonstrated in nearly all of his films. Those who only know Emily Dickinson through a smattering of poems in high school English class or as a line here and there off the internet or from a greeting card will get a new view of this very important artist.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.