Terence Davies’ and Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson biopic burns with ‘A Quiet Passion’

May 5, 2017, 11:03 a.m.

What joy in this film!

No, it’s not “joyful”; in fact, it’s glum and depressing and painful to watch. It’s from Terence Davies, Britain’s cinemaster of ex-Catholic, gay, working-class, spiritualized pain, director of such brutally personal masterworks as “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1989) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992). It’s about a poet, Emily Dickinson, whom Garrison Keillor called “the patron saint of shy people” — who for her entire life rode shotgun with bosom companions Spurned Love, Loneliness, and Death. The joy in an item like “Quiet Passion” is the preservation of sanctity of lived experience — of breathing, love, family, mortality, and of course, the thing which brings the above in sharpest relief: art.

There’s a different kind of joy: that of an actually-meaningful artist tackling the life of a kindred spirit. Quel bonus if the artists are cut from the same cloth, if they are in sync, if they engage in dialogues across years, decades, centuries. The personal touch always helps. In Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life” (1956), the melodramatic soul of the Hollywood auteur was aptly attuned to the swirling, emotional anguish of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes. Likewise, only David O. Russell with his kinetic kook could, with “Joy” (2015), capture the off-center grit of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano’s struggles to get her invention off the ground. In both, the key stars, Kirk Douglas and Jennifer Lawrence, were somehow completely acting like themselves in unchanged star personas (Kirk Douglas doing his grit-teeth act; Jennifer Lawrence just a shade mellower than her “American Hustle” wildness) and, at the same time, deeply submerged in the psyche and torment of their subjects (today, it’s much easier to see this in the Douglas performance, since Douglas isn’t as ubiquitous a presence as Lawrence.)

Such is the case with “A Quiet Passion,” where Terence Davies’ pointed anguish has a decisive effect on the controlled, inward cool of Cynthia Nixon. She’s part of that Douglas-Lawrence tradition of glamorous stars sliding into the skin of their famous doppelgänger, without fuss or Daniel Day-Lewis posturing. Nixon is damn good at mixing the mundane and the mythic sides of Dickinson. When Emily writes her verse, humoring her sister or mother or Lady Austen-like best friend (MVP Catherine Bailey), Nixon’s voice carries the gentle lilt, patience, ordinariness of a Takahata or Ozu hero — Taeko in “Only Yesterday” (1991) or the myriad Setsuko Hara-played daughters, where the richness of the character lays in an unregretful/melancholic embrace of the present. From three in the morning till sunrise, Emily Dickinson is hard at work; when questioned, she explains her odd method with Setsuko Hara-like relish: “It’s the best time. When it feels as if the whole world is asleep and still.” The up-down-dash lilt in the Nixon voice is downright musical. When Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon) dismisses her own boring existence (“No one would know I was here”), Dickinson responds with a rousing anti-world force that dissolves into a weird, existential angst: “But if you weren’t — oh! — what a chasm you would leave!” It’s like Dickinson’s verse leapt from the page and into the room — an eerie effect.

But a gravely different Emily emerges as her life slowly transitions from Whit Stillmanesque snipes at the patriarchy to an ever-paralyzing stillness inside her bedchamber. From her publisher to her suitors, she refuses people’s advances, talking only from the top of the stairs. Fantasies begin to trickle into her life more often; a mysterious man in black — her impossible ideal — ascends Davies’ signature staircase, up to her room. The fantasies sustain her through her bouts of kidney failure and epilepsy, which make her life a living hell. Indeed, the scenes of Nixon/Emily suffering seizures are among the most violent and distressing images Davies has ever shot.

It’s a Davies film, through and through. As Mr. Dickinson, Keith Carradine plays a Davies father in a smaller subset of Brutal Abusers, the second most common male in his work. The fathers of “Sunset Song” and “Distant Voices, Still Lives” are more violent than Mr. Dickinson, yes, but Carradine’s unsmiling face and intolerance of frivolity is essentially the anger of Pete Postlethwaite or Peter Mullan bottled up and dressed in New England niceties. For her part, Emily (the termite rebel) is furious at how men treat women in Massachusetts. Paradoxically, however, she gets part of her spunk from Father himself, who encourages his children to be “sophisticated,” not “docile.” As was the case with the other abusive fathers in the Davies oeuvre, the would-be victim turns a thorn into a rose, refuses to be pushed in the mud, picks herself up and stokes her inner fire, aiming anger back out in creative outlets (cultivating land in “Sunset Song,” Bud watching cinema and daydreaming in Welles and Wyler in “Long Day Closes,” writing poetry here).

There are breathtaking long takes that pause on seemingly nothing. At the opera, during a piano interlude before the soprano starts singing, Davies refuses to cut or move the camera; we just see Emily’s rapt face, Dad’s stern disapproval, Aunt Elizabeth pretentiously eyeing the room to see if she’s being looked at. It’s a glorious moment of human observation — Davies’ faith in smallness, once again confirmed. And not surprisingly, the moment picks up a trend that weaves in and out of Dickinson’s small-size, huge-ambition verse, which prefers the anthill to the mountain:

A little Road—not made of Man—

Enabled of the Eye—

Accessible to Thill of Bee—

Or Cart of Butterfly—


If Town it have—beyond itself—

’Tis that—I cannot say—

I only know—no Vehicle

Bears me along that Way—

Terence Davies' and Cynthia Nixon's Emily Dickinson biopic burns with 'A Quiet Passion'
The only confirmed daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, ca. 1847. Public domain.

The screenplay — “the best/funniest/spiffiest of Davies’ career,” etc. — is chock full of such rich moments of pause it makes you want to reach for your journal and jot down every word. Like last year’s Davies picture “Sunset Song,” some will probably find the dialogue tedious and obvious, or (at worse) starchy and declamatory. After all, this is a movie where men acknowledge the first shot at Fort Sumter, the beginning of the Civil War, the real reason it’s being fought (slavery), the immoral implications thereof, the draft, and the millionaire’s evasion of said draft — all in a span of a heated thirty-second convo. Realism as such, however, is never Davies’ goal; far too drab for him. What’s maybe even more stunning is how Cynthia Nixon’s curious-attentive listening has so sneaked itself into the film’s bone structure at this point, that we notice Emily is not in the frame. She listens nervously beyond the shot, holding her sister-in-law’s baby in her hand (after having casually composed “I’m Nobody!/Who are you?” on the spot); to inspire her verse, she uses, not the literal exchange about the Civil War, but rather the soul and meaning underneath the literal — the bloody deaths, neatly skipped yet feverishly there.

Even the first half’s unexpected humor (not common for Davies’ works) is coated with a Hollywood musical blueness, Rembrandtian black. It’s gravely different from the evenly-applied airiness and gaiety of Whit Stillman, whose “Love & Friendship” (2016) resembles the first half of “A Quiet Passion” on the surface. When the persnickety Aunt Elizabeth (co-MVP Annette Badland) departs the Dickinson kids with a perfectly delivered “I shall pray for you all!”, Davies balances out this unexpected moment of levity with an equally unexpected come-down to earth, courtesy of Nixon reciting Dickinson’s poem “I went to thank Her — but she Slept —” as Aunt Elizabeth’s carriage departs. Suddenly, the comedy is infested with Death, the two never separate. One truly doesn’t realize the beauty, the privilege, the precious holiness of a tea date or a family member until that person is asleep. As Emily writes:

‘Twas Short — to cross the Sea —

To look upon Her like — alive —

But turning back — ‘twas slow —

Davies is such the perfect artist to make a film about Dickinson; they understand hope and mortality like the backs of their hands. In the most knockout shot of the film (recalling Hawks’ “Red River” pan around a sleepy cow-herd about to be taken to Missouri), the camera creeps and circles around the living room, observing life about to begin (young Emily will grow into the poet) and death fast on the family’s heels. It starts with Emily quietly reading a book of poetry. Then, one by one, we pass by each Dickinson, frittering away the night in her or his own mundane zone (knitting, reading, watching the fire crackle). Emily’s voiceover hovers above their unknowing heads, briefly flooding the room with her lilt’s natural loneliness — which at the core we all bear. The shot ends parked again on Emily, now trained away from the book and staring frightfully at her family, her eyes darting back and forth in agitation, reading death and obscurity in each family member’s face. They won’t leave a lasting impression. Her? Maybe — maybe not — she is unsure, as we all are. For all her life, Dickinson was negotiating the place of her family in her poetry, of her private feelings standing in for the universal. Nagging doubts, existential and atomlike, plagued this poet, as they do our best artists (like Davies). Emily looks at her mother on the cusp of death, and she feels torture, angst. There’s a dramatic chasm that separates Joanna Bacon’s frozen, waxlike figure, Emma Bell’s mortal youngness, and Cynthia Dixon’s confident, fluid voice. While Mother Dickinson is lost in the fire of her quotidian thoughts (she will never transcend her time), Young Emily is sharply aware of past, present and post-death future (she has historical consciousness). Both bear burdens too great to name, burdens preserved by Davies’ fleeting-gliding camera.

The camera is the key to this queerly not-sad sorrow. “A Quiet Passion” moves in slow, inevitable glides, like we’re trotting parallel to the Carriage carrying Emily, Death, and Immortality. Regardless of whether or not Dickinson was the subject,Davies’ motion pictures have always had her dash-like rhythm: Random snatches of dialogue are picked up an hour after they were passingly introduced, and the feel of an established scene get dropped without a warning. Think back to “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” when, in one scene, the kids are celebrating the joys of gifts and family at Christmastime, and, in the next, the Father trashes Mother’s Christmas feast by pulling the tablecloth, dishes crash everywhere: “NOW CLEAN IT UP,” he screams to Mother with her head buried in her lap. A similar trippiness of memory is shown in the scene where Emily religiously awaits a mysterious “looming man at midnight” — set to a Celtic, mournful rendition of Thomas Ford’s “Since First I Saw Your Face.” It’s a scene of great romantic ache — and it’s sandwiched between two hilariously inconsequential scenes where a man-boy suitor tries to get Emily to leave her bedchamber. The bookmarks seem to happen on the same day, but the Celtic interlude (Davies returning to the phantasmagoric imagery of “The Long Day Closes” and “The Neon Bible”) breaks up the smooth temporality. The structure of Davies’ films is set by the mind’s volcanic moods, of a person in the throes of remembrance, regardless of whether their source material is explicitly literary (“The House of Mirth,” “Sunset Song”) or autobiographical (“The Long Day Closes,” “Of Time and the City”).

“For the first time in my career,” Davies said recently, “I’m in danger of being prolific.” What a time to be alive. We hear that his next project is a biopic of Siegfried Sassoon, one of the three great poets of the First World War. If we are to expect anything from that picture, it should be a joyful sadness — which, like “A Quiet Passion,” is not a contradiction.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Carlos Valladares is a senior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food— and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.

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