Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. United Kingdom/Belgium, 2016. Hurricane Films, Potemkino, WeatherVane Productions. Screenplay by Terence Davies. Cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister. Produced by Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos. Music by Ian Neil. Production Design by Merijn Sep. Costume Design by Catherine Marchand. Film Editing by Pia Di Ciaula. Toronto International Film Festival 2016.
A woman who suffers for being too modern for her society is not new ground for director Terence Davies, whose House of Mirth, Sunset Song and The Deep Blue Sea have previously put across sympathetic tales of females enduring a system that has set them up to fail. Where his magnificent biography of poet Emily Dickinson (played here by Cynthia Nixon) diverges from those films is that while the others are played for tragedy, A Quiet Passion allows for a good deal of humour and, most important, holds its protagonist as responsible for her own behaviour as it does the outside forces hemming in her accomplishments (when he adapts Edith Whaton’s novel, he plays it for pure pathos and ignores the author’s sardonic view of her creation). Raised in religious solemnity but not piety in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts, Dickinson (exquisitely played in her younger years by Emma Bell) defies the severity of her religious school before putting pen to page and enjoying some success as a published writer, happy in a family home she tried to keep from change (neither she nor her sister Lavinia, played by Jennifer Ehle, ever marry). Emily is frequently honest about her insecurities about her looks in the hopes that being so open will help her conquer them (not unlike Davies himself, actually), and she endures the physical pain of a kidney condition that will ultimately take her life; spending her youth fascinated by the hypocrisy of the people around her who constantly confuse societal rules for religious dogma (demonstrated ever so beautifully by a marvelous Annette Badland in a few scenes as her principled aunt), Dickinson seeks to make her own path to God, enlightenment and freedom but with the passage of time, the slow degradation of her health and the disappointment of the moral failings of those around her, finds it difficult to make more of her life than just being an angry woman raging in an increasingly empty home. Davies does a beautiful job of creating the pace of life before, during and after the American Civil War, using tableaux and dialogue that bring to mind a stiff style of Victorian-era theatre that is performed so sincerely that it is not laughable but delicate and ornate. The conversations between characters, which never apologize for how richly they are written, bring up themes prevalent to the fiery author’s life (feminism, abolitionism and a secularism bordering on atheism) and are sometimes humorous, other times explosive interchanges between people whose more emotional overtones are transformed into controlled and articulate verses by an artist who achieves far greater fame after her death than she does in life (a reality which, according to this film, she is wholly prepared to be disappointed by). The sight of this landmine of a personality bouncing off the walls of a home that, from the outside, couldn’t possibly seem more peaceful is a perfectly fascinating sight to behold, the rich texture of the direction and photography providing the most effective feeling of time travel since Mike Leigh’s period films. Nixon is undoubtedly a good fit in the lead, but, and I realize this is a contentious point to make, she is slightly less effective than her co-stars or Davies as filmmaker herself. A phenomenally talented and skilled actor, there’s something a bit too bloodlessly perfect about her performance that allows the work to show, though you could say that this is the right way to represent a very self-aware character. Yet look at how much more effective Ehle is at performing an old-fashioned kind of acting style, putting across more truth while indicating less in her manner, and this film becomes a textbook example of why Nixon is an exemplary actress and not a movie star. It takes nothing away from the quality of the film, however, which also includes Catherine Bailey in a delightful supporting turn as Dickinson’s irrepressibly rebellious friend Vryling Buffam.