Milo Garner reviews Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic.
Terence Davies is one of Britain’s greatest auteurs, and one whose qualities are too often unsung. He is similar to another Ter[r]ence from across the Atlantic – his films are singular, scarce, and typically brilliant. Unlike Malick, however, who is pushing his cinema far away from scripts and rehearsals, Davies excels in the literary and the mannered. His scripts are witty and tight, often accurately adapted from books and plays, and his camera is generally static, unlike Malick’s always roaming eye.
Another key similarity in the filmographies of Davies and Malick is their tendency to suffer development hell – Malick’s oft-touted two-decade disappearing act was less an act than a series of ventures that failed to get off the ground. Davies, too, has had problems launching his idiosyncratic projects, with a fifteen-year break between The House of Mirth and Sunset Song caused simply by the troubles in getting the latter greenlit. This leads in to A Quiet Passion, Davies’ latest film, which itself was trapped in development from 2012 to its eventual premiere in 2016. Appropriately, it is a film concerned with another idiosyncratic artist whose work struggled to meet the light of day. This artist is Emily Dickinson, the now-revered American poet whose life remains shrouded in obscurity. Davies’ film does little to necessarily ‘solve’ this mystery of Dickinson, nor does he attempt to create a biopic of her life. Rather he explores her character relative to her poetry, considering Dickinson’s existential and religious fears, coupled with the more prosaic issues of loneliness and self-esteem.
This alternative approach is made clear by the structure of the film itself. It starts as one might expect, in Dickinson’s school days, at the end of her second semester. Her teacher, Miss Lyon, stands a little off-centre on her stage (no mistake there) and asks her pupils to stand left or right, whether they would like to go into the world, or to God and be saved. Dickinson stands resolute in the centre – ‘you are alone in your rebellion’, says Lyon.
Despite her apparent blaspheming (or critical thinking), Dickinson was no atheist, and Davies portrays her spirituality excellently even in this early period. Davies’ own distaste for the church is no secret, and this film in no way contradicts this position – Dickinson’s evangelical surroundings are indicted in no small part for the crippling repression she would suffer later in life. After a sharp exchange with an aunt, portrayed with excellent God-fearing fury by Annette Badland, the film jumps decades ahead. Each captured in daguerreotype, the camera pans in on the members of the Dickinson family, notably excepting the mother, as they morph into their older forms. Rather than looking cheesy or out of place, this works remarkably well, both with the actors made up to be older, and indeed the new changing faces – Emma Bell transforms quite perfectly into Cynthia Nixon. By forgoing such a large section of Dickinson’s life, A Quiet Passion also forgoes any pretention to portraying the ‘full’ story of the poet; it is content in exploring her in snapshots, and is all the better for it.
The poems themselves are interspersed throughout the film, narrated by Nixon, and often relate to events on screen, though not always in the most obvious way. Davies has stated in an interview with the LA Review of Books that ‘the poems … have to act as music’, and he then references Hitchcock’s claim that ‘if the image and the music are doing the same thing, one of them is redundant’. This reflects his approach to the poetry in this film, allowing Dickinson’s poetry to act as counterpoint to her life, as opposed to perfect harmony. The narrative itself focuses less on her process of writing, but more her experiences surrounding that process. For example, her friendship with the libertine Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) is key to expressing her will to push to the end of her society, and her friendly envy of someone managing to do just that. Many of the scenes populating the middle act of the film are similar – Dickinson interacts with her family and those around her in and around the confines of her home – and in the moment some do feel aimless. But they will be contextualized as the film continues. Dickinson’s small insecurities, her doubts and worries, come further and further to the fore, and we see her home become a prison, her unsureness a deep repression. Her witty rebellion remains a constant, but changes from a form of youthful critique of those around her to an almost spiteful rejection of her society. A righteous fury, perhaps, but not one without consequence. While the exact reasons for Dickinson’s nature are never spelt out, the tragedy of her circumstances is made clear enough.
A Quiet Passion explores Dickinson’s responses to these circumstances both existentially and in reality. Her poetry and ill health define this first section, fuelled by religious insecurity. ‘Behind Me—dips Eternity –/Before Me – Immortality –/Myself – the Term between –’ reads poem 721, and it defines Dickinson’s position well – not so much unsure of God, as much as of her immortal soul, trapped between two apparent infinities. This is exaggerated by her illness. Many have supposed she may have been epileptic, but Davies does not indulge this theory, instead focusing on the Bright’s disease that she certainly did experience. This is mainly characterized in the film by fits periodically suffered by Dickinson, and captured in heart-wrenching detail by an unwavering camera. The scenes are remarkably similar to a section of Davies’ debut short, 1976’s Children, which featured a similarly shocking fit – his ability to affectingly display such conditions seems not to have lessened. As we watch Dickinson’s health decline, ideas of existence and what comes next are naturally and subtly brought to the fore of the audience’s mind. On the other side of the coin is Dickinson’s loneliness, slowly built across the length of the film, particularly in her isolation. With few friends, and fewer after the departure of Buffam, Dickinson finds herself middle-aged, without husband, and with an editor who would rather edit her ‘women’s poetry’ for readability than publish it as is. She comes to the assumption that she is inferior, that her poetry is not good enough (and notes with frustration that even if it does come to be appreciated after her time, it will be too late), and that she is too ugly to love. This belief reaches fever pitch when she refuses to reveal herself to a suitor, sitting beyond the stairs in a self-destructive stubbornness. For a poet so concerned with natural beauty in her writing, that she might think it incompatible with herself in reality is deeply affecting. It should also be mentioned that Nixon is flawless in her portrayal of Dickinson, both in her moments of empowered bitterness and repressed weakness; such a strong performance acts as a lynchpin for the entire film.
The technical aspects of the film are, like any Davies film, without fault. The camera acts as is usual of his style, cutting between well framed static shots most of the time, with particular events captured in beautiful tracking movements. These pans are made all the more powerful by their contrast to the rest of the film, and are often moments of a pure cinematic bliss that few other directors can hope to manage. The perfect example of not only this, but Davies’ cinema as a whole, is in A Quiet Passion’s ending, which is, in a word, sublime. After succumbing to her illness, Dickinson’s funeral takes place, and she is put in a carriage to be taken to her final resting place. The camera, positioned aerially and peering down at the procession, travels slowly across the scene. On the soundtrack is poem 479, ‘Because I could not stop for Death –’, read wonderfully by Nixon – perhaps the most evident choice given the action on camera, but a faultless fit nonetheless. Eventually the camera reaches her grave, and the unearthed rectangle that would hold her mortal remains, slowly fading to black as the poem concludes: ‘Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet/Feels shorter than the Day/I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/Were toward Eternity –’. The unutterable dash that ends so many of Dickinson’s poems is here enunciated in as close a manner as the visual form might allow, and the apparent finality that a biopic might attain by ending with the death of its protagonist is shattered. We wonder whether eternity is truly where she is headed, and what that might mean; rarely has death felt so intimate in film. That the credits are accompanied by the chords to Charles Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’, in what could be the best use of this piece (perhaps bettering even Malick’s use in The Thin Red Line), only emphasises this insecure, but conclusive, finale. I might add that this inimitable ending is likely a step above most of the film that came before, and indeed a step above most cinema in general, but makes a great ending for what is, taken together, a great film.
A Quiet Passion is still playing in select UK cinemas. See the trailer below: