Terence Davies, one of the best filmmakers working in British cinema today, has only continued to prove his streak of beauty with the autobiographical A Quiet Passion. This sort of material was no surprise to have seen from Davies but in typical Davies fashion it just sweeps me away from its quietness, because there’s a clear love for Emily Dickinson’s poetry which allows for such a captivating experience to come by. And maybe it was right there where Davies only had the most fitting title to describe what he presented here in his work, because he’s shown a quiet passion for life as is – something that he has only ever managed to reflect so beautifully in his career. And maybe it may not be his best work, but it’s everything I love about Davies on the spot and then some.
Starring Cynthia Nixon as the famous American poet, Terence Davies’s film recalls her beginnings during her schoolgirl years and covers her life to the point she has already become an artist unrecognizable by the community around her. But in this great care that Terence Davies has for telling her own story, it’s clear that Davies has also used this as an opportunity to share with his audiences an experience that he has lived through, for Davies isn’t so much forming a biopic with A Quiet Passion but almost like a mirror of pain he so greatly connects with. There’s a great respect for Dickinson’s legacy coming into play, but the fact it feels so confined unlike a traditional biopic only highlights a greater sense of care for the story being told in typical Davies fashion: fragile, but we always stick around as they move towards us.
Cynthia Nixon’s casting as Emily Dickinson was one that doesn’t merely feel like she’s playing a character, but she’s made Dickinson herself from the confinement she is living within. But the power of her role comes also from what Terence Davies is presenting in order to create a mood for A Quiet Passion as a whole. What catches me about the way Cynthia Nixon is playing Emily Dickinson comes from the sort of a story that Terence Davies is making from her own life, being an isolated figure – only allowing Nixon to carry the role all the more from her own emotions. She’s a character who has struggled with connecting to the outside world, although in the obscurity of the poetry she has found a way to let her own voice out. But who was there to listen? In the way Terence Davies tells her story, he has a clear empathy for her pain, but at the same time he shows a sense of compassion all throughout that allows his viewers to embrace this experience.
But the way Terence Davies moves around her life is where A Quiet Passion begins to feel less like a biopic about Emily Dickinson, but rather just exactly what it was that the title describes, “a quiet passion.” A quiet passion for life, the search for meaningfulness within isolation, and a quiet passion for finding one’s own self. Davies isn’t merely showing Emily Dickinson as a victim of the society that she is a part of but also as a victim of her own self, because of how she lacks the ability to find a connection with the world around her. This comes back to what it is that I loved most about watching a Terence Davies film, the film bursts with life but at the same time finds itself within a state of solitude that grants Cynthia Nixon only the most to show within her own role as Emily Dickinson. And if this doesn’t turn out to be a career best for her, I’m only going to be left all the more surprised because she wasn’t playing Emily Dickinson anymore, she was Emily Dickinson.
Quickly after having finished the film, I decided to go through Dickinson’s poetry for once and I soon found myself forming a greater connection with Dickinson herself. She was a woman who wanted life but found it greatly difficult just to search for it, to the point she almost seemed dead, even to herself. It was clear enough through her own poem I felt a Funeral, in my Brain where A Quiet Passion almost in itself feels like a reflection of such in the typical Terence Davies fashion. Davies shows a clear compassion for Dickinson and her legacy, whether it be from who she was as a person to her poetry in itself, something that only made A Quiet Passion all the more moving. It was at this point where it didn’t feel so much like a biopic, because as someone who was unfamiliar with Dickinson herself, I couldn’t recognize the film as one first hand, but rather instead as a moving portrait of life as it tries to flow through a river but can’t cope with the current.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain / And Mourners to and fro / Kept treading – treading – till it seemed/ That Sense was breaking through” as I quote one of her own poems, I feel like I should take time to read Dickinson’s work more. I loved the quietness of life trying to find a voice in some way or another, and was ultimately moved by the sheltered nature of Dickinson in herself, even trying to fight against her own self to get a better grasp on the world around her. I loved how Terence Davies filled this film with life, yet kept it looming with an impending sense of doom because of what it was that Emily Dickinson had become. Even if this weren’t a perfect film, it was so close to one, because it was simply Terence Davies coming back to what it is that I loved most about him. Because in this quietness, he showed a great sense of passion for life as it moves forward, and eventually comes to its own end.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Music Box Films.
Directed by Terence Davies
Screenplay by Terence Davies
Produced by Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos
Starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 112 minutes