For director Terence Davies, two films in as many years is fast work. With Sunset Song last year and now A Quiet Passion, his output is speeding up compared to his eight year gap after the year 2000, but the films themselves remain long and leisurely. So, if you’re intending to see his latest, prepare for the long haul.
His biopic of American poet, Emily Dickinson, definitely takes its time and isn’t just a straightforward story of her life. There’s a strong element of a tribute, a respectful tone in its depiction of her challenging attitude towards the conventions of the days, her personal suffering, both physical and mental, and her poetry. And he avoids all the speculation about her in her later years, when she was a recluse.
The film follows her from her teenage days at school, through her return to the family home to live with her parents (her mother is ailing), brother and sister. While her father despairs of her attitude to the church, he allows her to write poetry. She becomes friends with the independent and spirited Vrylyng Buffam (Catherine Bailey) but, as the years go by and her work goes all but unrecognised, the people around her slowly diminish. Miss Buffam marries, her father dies, then her mother. Emily (Cynthia Nixon) becomes more reclusive, bitter and increasingly lonely. And her health has been failing for some time.
As Dickinson, Cynthia Nixon delivers a superlative performance. We watch as her eyes lose the sparkle of her earlier years, as the smile becomes increasingly less present and the eyes sink further back, just as she retreats from the world. Yet we believe that, despite her increasing reclusiveness, what she really wants is companionship, a meeting of minds. She is deeply, painfully, lonely – yet also realises that she’s probably meant to be solitary. She certainly doesn’t do anything to prevent it. Nixon leads the rest of the cast by example in what is her finest work ever, with Jennifer Ehle as the sister with the sunnier disposition and Keith Carradine as her father – a velvet fist in an iron glove – providing fine support.
Visually, the film has the look of an old painting, with the golden, smoky glow of candles and gas lamps giving the interiors a sense of slow ageing. And the deliberate pace reflects what life must have been like in the Dickenson’s household, where time moved at slowly and the house was quiet, apart from the sound of singing or piano playing. But there are times when that slowness is stretched just too far, with lingering shots dwelling over objects which add nothing to what the director is trying to say. The same applies to the sweeping, circular shots he’s so fond of: a snip here and there would have given them more impact.
As the central character is a poet, a wordsmith, you expect dialogue of the highest order. That’s not quite what you get, especially in the exchanges between Emily and her sister or Miss Buffam. They don’t so much talk to each other as trade witty, sometimes perceptive, epithets, in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. It’s just a little too arch, too self-consciously clever to be wholly convincing, even though the women are all intelligent and witty.
A Quiet Passion falls short of perfection in a number of areas and it won’t be to everybody’s tastes. It’s something of a challenge but, if you can tolerate that slow pace and the tendency to dwell far too long on insignificant vases of flowers, there is much here to admire and appreciate. Cynthia Nixon’s performance in particular.
A Quiet Passion is out now in UK cinemas.