A QUIET PASSION Review
Director: Terence Davies
Genre: Biopic, Drama
How to begin a discussion on the works of Terence Davies? For a filmmaker of such critical approbation, Davies is also an enigma, an auteur of the highest order who’d go completely unnoticed on a red carpet. His films feel destined to a shelf life shorter than your spring break top 10 hit, for he is the mayfly of cinema. No Davies film should simply be taken at face value, since their very existence is one of astonishing perseverance. This seems to genetically rub off in every Davies project. In the DNA of his films lies a narrative of hardship, one that almost self-reflexively realizes that a film like A QUIET PASSION is so unashamedly niche that watching it feels transformative through experience alone.
Following up his critically revered SUNSET SONG, an overlooked gem that made our year end list, A QUIET PASSION bravely and boldly attempts to canvas the life and times of Emily Dickinson, from her years as a schoolgirl to her untimely death in 1886. Landlocked almost entirely to the confines of Dickinson’s ancestral home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Davies masterfully renders an introspective portrait of age, contemplation, family, and obligation. How it stacks up next to Davies’s prior outing is entirely up to the viewer. Where SUNSET SONG was vibrant with romance, heartbreak, and soulful expression, A QUIET PASSION is a far more melancholy ride, but not one without its bouts of levity.
“Come hither and suck from my brain hole” – Memorable Quotes: A QUIET PASSION
Emma Bell and Cynthia Nixon play a young and old Emily, respectively, each showcasing a brilliant vulnerability: an identity mired in posh, egotistic elitism, but fervently opposed to patriarchal dominance. Encounters play out like black tie blockbuster set pieces, allowing the film’s stoic ensemble to verbally spar in games of sharp, biting rhetoric. A scene involving an epileptic attack may also go down as one of the most visceral, discomforting viewing experiences I’ll have this year. As such, A QUIET PASSION feels astutely written, balancing its bouts of comedy and tragedy down to the syllable, justifying every muttered word that is delivered by its sassy leads. It is more of a Whit Stillman project than what is usually expected of Davies, showcasing a versatility that acts as a welcome surprise to anyone familiar with his work.
This mechanical writing propels Davies’s narrative forwards with a deft pragmatism, a far cry from the sensitive, instinctive filmmaking that drove SUNSET SONG. Davies’s camera no longer floats and tracks with the romantic, free spirit of Agyness Deyn, but languorously rests with the reclusive Nixon: it is a hermit both in form and function. The Dickinson homestead slowly but surely transforms from a place of tranquility to a prison of despondency: a fortress for Emily to surrender to her greatest vices. With this locked camerawork comes an attention to performance that Davies wasn’t quite so tuned into in his last undertaking. In fact, A QUIET PASSION is virtually the diametric opposite of SUNSET SONG. While both are films about the hardships of women in their respective era, Davies’s latest vehicle studies the longing of a woman dying to be validated by the men around her, either for her talent as a writer or her feminine wiles.
And so I wrote: “Whoa here she comes. / Watch out boy she’ll chew you up. / Whoa here she comes / She’s a maneater.”
If your knowledge of Emily Dickinson’s life fell to the wayside somewhere in your middle school English class, the prior paragraph ought to be indication enough of the great tragedy at the center of A QUIET PASSION. Davies has always been a sucker for melodrama, after all. Ruthlessly heartbreaking, Nixon’s performance during the latter half of the film expertly communicates the verbal minefield one had to navigate as an 1800s suffragette. And while the verbal chaos is riotous in its comical needling of its characters’ emotions, Davies laces every encounter with high-stakes drama to oppose it. What’s more, viewers will—much like with any other Davies film—have to consider the film’s milieu in order to better understand Nixon’s icy, rigid, standoffish, and occasionally cruel behavior. Davies does expect a reasonable amount of effort from his audience, but if you’re willing to invest, the returns are bountiful.
Going into A QUIET PASSION with the understanding that Davies has crafted an Emily Dickinson biopic would be wholly misguided. As much as the film intends to inform on her life, it is much more concerned with an accurate representation of her experience, simulating the hardships, injustices, failings, and tragedies she had to bear. What’s more, A QUIET PASSION brilliantly illuminates the sexism at the heart of any art form. Davies realizes that women have yet to be taken seriously as artists to this day, and uses Emily Dickinson’s body of work as a case in point. A viewer’s personal reverence for the late poet is sure to influence with what magnitude Davies’s thesis will hit home, but as someone hardly clued in on her legacy at all, I found A QUIET PASSION to be deeply moving: a celebration of our inner romantic, and a march of solidarity for any woman that has ever stood up to the men in her life.