It’s easy for us to take for granted now the enormous struggle of the great female writers of the 1800s. We understand the importance of women like Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters, but these women fought hard to be counted as legitimate literary voices, often publishing anonymously or even, in Eliot’s case, under male pseudonyms. We also take for granted the emotional cost of their work, often romanticising the tortured male artist and ignoring the complex psychological landscape of the women writing in this same period. This is one of the chief concerns for acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Davies, whose latest film ‘A Quiet Passion’ looks at the life of beloved American poet Emily Dickinson. Rather than delivering something weighed down with heavy dramatics and sweeping emotion though, Davies has crafted a period film full of magic, humour and heart.
‘A Quiet Passion’ is both a biography of Dickinson and a meditation on her, similar to Mike Leigh’s superb ‘Mr Turner’. We follow the evolution of Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) through her close relationship with her family - her father (Keith Carradine), her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Austin (Duncan Duff). She is a woman out of time, a pioneer of the belief in equality in America, especially between men and women, and in her strength as a legitimate literary voice. What hides beneath the surface though is a crippling lack of self-confidence in her personality and appearance, something that threatens her capacity for happiness and connection.
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Everything about ‘A Quiet Passion’ seeks to explore this idea of the distance between Emily and the world in which she lives, but as something to celebrate rather than pity. Her position within the frame, her costuming and her dialogue all combat with the order around her, at first with a considered and cheeky anarchy and eventually in devastating displacement. Davies refuses to fall into the trap of the dreary, tortured biopic and instead fills the film with light, energy and a wicked sense of humour that permeates every facet of it. His screenplay sparkles with infectious wit, offering a portrait of Dickinson that balances realism with a kind of Austen-like theatricality, and Davies uses carefully chosen moments to inform her development and our understanding of her. We aren’t offered a literary icon but someone living, a woman determined to make more of herself in a world not built to support her. The humour and wit of the film, both in the screenplay and its execution, exist on a knife's edge, at first thrilling in its sharpness and surprise before revealing a terror in Emily that is palpable and devastating to watch. Her struggle is a contemporary struggle, one that feels relevant and horribly current, where the expectations placed on her by a patriarchal society threaten to crush her individuality and her remarkable voice.
‘A Quiet Passion’ is an exquisite piece of filmmaking, somehow managing to feel immediate despite its period setting. This is thanks to Davies, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, production designer Merijn Sep and costume designer Catherine Marchand taking great care to construct a world for these characters to exist in rather than a piece of idealised portraiture, and making sure that the characters, especially the women, exist convincingly within it. Davies also concocts moments of dream and symbolism, playing with careful and gentle juxtapositions of image and sound to further unlock the world from Emily’s perspective. Nothing about the storytelling in ‘A Quiet Passion’ feels rushed or ill-conceived, but meticulous and careful.
We aren’t offered a literary icon but someone living, a woman determined to make more of herself in a world not built to support her.
What impresses the most about the film though - and ultimately what will leave it resonating in the minds of its audience - is the astounding central performance from Cynthia Nixon. We’ve been given criminally little opportunity to see Nixon demonstrate the breadth her talent on-screen, but her performance as Dickinson makes up for it in spades. Everything is in perfect balance, from her sly, cutting wit to her violent, devastating anger, with Nixon attentive to every minute detail. She is absolutely breathtaking to watch, and while the chances of the film maintaining steam until early next year are probably slim, worthy of Oscar attention. After seeing this performance, it is basically impossible to see Cynthia Nixon as anything other than one of the finest actors of her generation.
The women in the supporting cast are also an absolute delight. Jennifer Ehle has a giddy, infectious nature as Vinny, the perfect compliment to the often impenetrable strength of Emily. Catherine Bailey is tremendous as Vryling Buffam, Emily’s wonderfully outspoken best friend and confidant, who delivers some of the best one-liners in a film brimming with them. The moments where Emily and Vryling engage in intellectual sparing are some of the best in the film, and these three women in particular have a palpable chemistry. The men however don’t fare as well, partly due to their already being the weaker characters in the film. Carradine seems uncomfortable in this setting and role, and Duff has an insipid quality that makes him the least likeable aspect of the film.
Knowing nothing of Emily Dickinson and never having seen a Terrence Davies film before, I was totally enchanted by ‘A Quiet Passion’. There is an easiness and an electricity to this film that very few biopics or period films have had in a while, and focuses on a genuinely fascinating woman developing into the literary great she has no idea she will become. It is a quiet film in so many ways, but all of them a positive, possessing a quiet sense of possibility, anger, fear and hope. Beautifully crafted and with a towering central performance, ‘A Quiet Passion’ is a gorgeous celebration of a woman whose life, work and legacy are so very much deserving of celebration.