By Noel Vera
A Quiet Passion
Directed by Terence Davies
IF YOU ATTEMPT something often enough once in a while you’ll get it right. The biopic has been done so often in recent years someone had to hit the bullseye sometime, not so much telling a subject’s story with reasonable accuracy as using said subject’s life as grist to express the filmmaker’s obsessions on his own stylistic terms — I’m thinking of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster as lush and narratively wayward as any of his other works or Jane Campion’s Bright Star with its austere beauty and focus on the female protagonist (John Keat’s great love Fanny Brawne). Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion does something as interesting if not more so: cast Emily Dickinson — one of America’s greatest poets — in what is basically a horror film.
Davies opens the film with Emily (Emma Bell) already in effect buried alive, not just in 19th century New England (where men disapprove of women singing onstage) but in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she must take up among other subjects “ecclesiastical history.” Standing by herself to one side of a sparely decorated room she stands defiant against headmistress Miss Lyons (Sara Vertongen) who demands of her: “Have you said your prayers?” Historically there are several explanations for Emily leaving (sickness, homesickness, father wanted her home) but Davies tellingly opts for rebellion against “an acute case of evangelism.”
Emily in this first half (Cynthia Nixon as an adult) is a live wire, speaking out against piety (“What of hell?” “Avoid it if I can; endure it if I must”) and propriety (“She has led a blameless life.” “She hasn’t led a life at all!”), railing along the way on the subject of slavery (“which should never have flourished in this country in the first place”) and sexism (“live as a woman for a week… you will find it neither congenial nor trivial”). Add a crippling disability (Bright’s Disease, an old-fashioned term for a variety of kidney conditions) and what may have been depression if not severe agoraphobia and you might say she’s led a full life of sorts.
But those are the easy targets, the obvious targets, standard-issue in any feminist film; to Davies’ mind Emily goes further, condemning her brother Austin’s (Duncan Duff) extramarital affair (despite having pined for the married Reverend Wadsworth [Eric Loren] herself earlier), ranting against the poor hand God has dealt her appearance-wise (“The only people who can be sanguine about not being handsome are those who are beautiful already”), ultimately punishing the world the same way she punished the headmistress back at Mount Holyoke, with intractable defiance — this time standing alone within the walls of her room.
Davies’ tactic is more than deliberate, giving us what feels at first glance like a Whit Stillman period adaptation (Love & Friendship anyone?) complete with arch witticisms and pithy comebacks (which, judging from the surviving letters out of the many thousands she wrote, Emily was perfectly capable of crafting) showing us what a funny independent spirited soul she is. And then — not long after the death of her father (resplendent in black, laid out in a massive coffin that stretches across the screen) — dressing her in white and having her spend the rest of her relatively brief life sealed off in the upper floors of the Homestead, the family’s Amherst, MA mansion.
Then there are the poems. Emily’s seem suited to the big screen: somewhat short and easily recited in one- to two-minute increments they (as Nixon recites them) have a lively engaging cadence, not unlike a children’s rhyme. But what of the mysticism? What about the metaphysical longings? Davies’ visual style is exquisitely suited to expressing this side of Emily’s poetry, anchoring us in chastely sensuous images of the here and now (the gleaming wood, the rich textiles, the flicking warmth of candlelight) at the same time looking beyond the trappings at the outlines of the at times dark and forbidding God glimpsed at in her verses.
“Because I could not stop for Death” is an obvious choice for Emily’s passing but Davies takes a page from Dreyer and realizes the burial as a serene gliding journey to her final resting place (the last few verses — “since then — tis Centuries —” suggesting a chillingly long view of time’s passage as we peer down the deep hole in the ground). “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” the classic outsider’s anthem, shows Emily casting allegiance with Austin’s newborn child (they’re both outsiders hence instant good friends).
But Davies reserves his most rapturous — and most terrifying — passage not for a Dickinson poem but for a sentiment apparently extrapolated from her poems: “He will mount the stairs at midnight,” actress Nixon intones as Davies shows us the door — partly lit by sunlight — to Emily’s room. Nixon’s voice grows distressed as day wanes and the light slips away; as shadows gather her voice chokes as she cries out: “O please let him come! Let him not forget me!” A little too on-the-nose for Dickinson but as a cri de coeur fashioned for the film it’s an unforgettable moment: suddenly the shadows about the doorway take on a mortal aspect and the door’s white wood resembles the cover of a casket, freshly hammered shut. Suddenly our hearts are in there with Emily, and we need to pause to recover our senses.
Available on DVD.