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A Quiet Passion

April 14, 2017

A Quiet Passion (2017)
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine

Quiet-Passion_300.jpg (300×169)

Synopsis: The life of American poet, Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell, Cynthia Nixon).

Review: Having recently read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal 1892 feminist novella, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, it seems more than opportune that I encounter Terence Davies’ exquisite biopic of 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion. Both works are about the domestic and professional restrictions placed on ‘creative’ women in 19th century American society, and the torment and tragedy that comes with that repression.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate director for this sort of material than Davies. He’s an expert literary filmmaker, he’s one of the greatest ever directors of the period movie genre, he’s a master at depicting thwarted desire, and he’s a great filmer of interior stories (and that’s interior as literally denotes indoors as well as internal emotions).

The opening to the film outlines the mastery of Davies’ technique and rhetorical craft as he homes in straight away on the admirable qualities to Dickinson’s character. In a harsh religious school, the cruel headmistress instructs the girls to move to one side if they’ve accepted their subjugation to God (the implication being that they all should do!) All move away bar one – the young Emily (brilliantly incarnated by Emma Bell), who in Davies’ textbook symmetrical framing is depicted straight away as boldly and defiantly apart from convention. The subsequent scene is simply gorgeous, iconographic image-making as Dickinson looks wistfully out amid a sun-drenched room, awaiting her saving from school by her loving family. That family is then charted pictorially in one of Davies’ famed tracking shots (think the underground sequence in The Deep Blue Sea). The edenic haven of Dickinson’s family life is revealed as all the members are either writing, reading or engaged in crochet while the mother and father look lovingly on.

What’s so great about Davies’ work here is that he’s made a film that is at once extremely political and dramatic while also being compellingly interior and existential. The final thirty minutes of the film are especially magical as Davies recedes into one of his hallmark ‘quiet’ fade-outs of his narratives. Dickinson’s silent descent into her middle-aged malcontent state is beautiful – especially the poignant sequence where her and her sister tend to the final moments of their beloved mother.

Comment on the film would be remiss without acknowledging the uniform excellence of Davies’ cast (Keith Carradine as the stern, but generally understanding, family patriarch is especially poised). A Quiet Passion also features the best use of character ageing transitions I’ve ever seen. Davies makes this utilitarian trope utterly relevant by literally morphing the image of the young actor in portrait to the older actor – subtly suggesting the poignancy of ageing and the accrual of experience in the process. (April 2017)

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