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FILM REVIEW: A Quiet Passion
Image Credit: A Quiet Passion, Soda Pictures

FILM REVIEW: A Quiet Passion

3 April 2017 | Edd Elliott

Not many would have thought that coming round to the ripe old age of 70, Terence Davies—the eternal sage of British cinema—would be entering the most prolific stretch of his career. The poet of celluloid has always had lengthy pauses between his projects: five years, three years, five years again. As it is for so many art directors, funding has been a persistent obstacle. But now, only fourteen months after picturehouse hit Sunset Song departed screens, comes A Quiet Passion, the Liverpudlian filmmaker’s ninth feature and the first since 1995 to span the Atlantic.

The film explores the eccentric life of 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson, that most unlikely of national treasures. Living almost all her existence in her family home in Armherst, Massachussets, Dickinson was a famous recluse. In adulthood, she rarely left the house; she often even refused to descend the stairs to meet guests. Correspondence was conducted through letters and verse – though during her time, few of the iconoclast’s poems were published. A Quiet Passion picks up the story in adolescence. Emily has been dismissed from her Christian finishing school in Mount Holyoke, already a religious rebel in her youth. At home she is shielded by her liberal father, the county lawyer, but even within these more accommodating confines the self-confessed dissenter finds herself at odds with those around her. A loving relationship with her sister (Jennifer Ehle) proves one of the writer’s few retreats, but as time passes, strain is placed on even this sanctuary.

A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon
A Quiet Passion. Soda Pictures
 
Dickinson (scorchingly realised by Cynthia Nixon) is an individual alight with her beliefs. She is completely incapable of holding back her views and when they appear they surge like firebolts through her bristling posture. As she ages the sweetly roguish girl becomes increasingly gaunt; this zealous electricity has worn her down – in body, if not ideology. The poet’s final years are beset with fits of epilepsy and fierce outbursts. Nixon’s performance is a towering inferno of brimstone and judgement. Her impassioned remarks cut like a blade through her family’s chattering gossip; once she has spoken there is no hope of reply. In one scene Dickinson catches her brother having an affair with a neighbour, and the glare produced by the New York-born actress is enough to turn ice-caps to steam. Yet there is also a delicacy to Nixon’s Emily. Like the overly fervent student activists you meet at university parties, there is a vehemence to her absolutes that simultaneously connotes insecurity. She is her own harshest critic, and spends her lonely moments cursing her inflexibility. You can respect the poet’s beliefs—miles ahead of her time—to the utmost, but this is not someone with whom you’d want to be friends.

A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle
A Quiet Passion. Soda Pictures.
 
Terence Davies’ film has a similar—though less pronounced—unwieldy quality. This is not a movie that someone unfamiliar with Dickinson’s work is likely to revel in. Nor is it a film that after seeing you are likely to clutch to your chest and rush home to show your friends and family. The pleasures of A Quiet Passion, as the title suggests, are quiet and soft. Davies is the master of gentle statements, the subtle metaphor and the lonely rhyme. An odd combination, you might think, for the tempestuous Dickinson, but this has always been the veteran filmmaker’s way – impassioned subjects with a melancholic touch. Here the tender edge manifests in the bright, calming palette of the New England countryside and the quaint interiors of the poet’s white porch Massachusetts home. The soft cuts and docile camera movement lull the audience into a sleepy haze, only to be jolted awake here and there by Emily’s boiling temper.
 
Terence Davies’ films appear like a soft ballad amid the line-up of heavy metal and saccharine pop that makes up cinema’s usual weekly schedule. Compared to the normal period drama drivel, A Quiet Passion has brains and balance and a searing intent to push the expectations of its audience – albeit in a clandestine way. Some of the Sunday matinee crowd will find this too testing, but stay the course! It’s not the best film Davies has made, but the gentle genius is 70 – let’s keep funding him and savour every last project we get.
 
**** - 4 stars.

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