A Quiet Passion
Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson biopic begins as a wry social satire before becoming a Dreyer-esque death crawl
After a decade of difficulties with projects stuck in development hell, that British director Terence Davies now brings us his third feature in six years is a blessing not to be taken lightly. Arriving swiftly after his 2015 adaptation of Sunset Song, A Quiet Passion sees him back in literary mode, albeit with a biopic of a writer icon, rather than an adaptation. This also marks the filmmaker’s first foray to narrative territory across the pond since 2000’s The House of Mirth, as this long-gestating, uh, passion project concerns American poet Emily Dickinson.
As opposed to the back-and-forth chronology devices of efforts like The Deep Blue Sea, A Quiet Passion operates in a largely linear fashion, following Dickinson from her teens through to her disease-rooted death at 55. For the vast majority of the film, Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon in a nuanced turn that remains a vital anchor, as Davies’ stylistic mode switches up quite considerably as the film progresses.
In a somewhat surprising development, much of A Quiet Passion’s first half is heavily comedic in the vein of the dry wit of Whit Stillman – that writer-director’s own recent period effort, Love & Friendship, certainly comes to mind when watching. Consequently, when the tone goes sourer as the various tragedies of Dickinson’s life pile on, it’s an understandable change-up, but there’s something missing to make the transition feel smoother.
Perhaps it’s the repetitive nature to many of the scenes included, where too much fidelity to the subject’s life hammers home points already made clear. Maybe it’s that there’s more a feeling of static staginess to many sequences, as opposed to the hypnotising, uniquely cinematic quality so key to Davies’ previous life-spanning works like The Long Day Closes.
This is a fine film that may well reap rewards with repeat viewings, but upon first impression, the switch from epigram-heavy social satire to Dreyer-esque death crawl is more endurance test than evocative. Despite Nixon’s ability to externalise Dickinson’s inner demons as though forcibly torn from within the pit of her stomach, the film around her doesn’t burn with quite so much fire.
Follow Josh Slater-Williams on Twitter at @jslaterwilliams