Berlin Review: A Quiet Passion

Terence Davies' 'A Quiet Passion', elegantly portrays the life of Emily Dickinson, with a show-stopper performance from Cynthia Nixon, and a script worthy of Wilde.

Following on from 2014’s Sunset Song, British auteur Terence Davies returns with ‘A Quiet Passion’, a chamber-piece portrait of the life of one of America’s most notable ladies of letters, Emily Dickinson, portrayed by Sex In The City star Cynthia Nixon.

Joseph Walsh

This has to be one of the shortest gaps between Terence Davies films in recent years. His previous feature ‘Sunset Song’ was released only last year, and it’s expected that ‘A Quiet Passion’ will be in cinemas in 2016. Next in line, we can also expect Mother of Sorrows, an adaptation of the novel by Richard McCann (release date yet to be announced).

So, after years in the wilderness, Davies is back with a flurry of films, most recently the incredibly enjoyable, expertly crafted chamber piece, ‘A Quiet Passion’, which plays out of competition at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival.

The film details the tragic life of American poet Emily Dickinson, played in youth by Emma Bell and latterly by Cynthia Nixon, who is perhaps best-known for her role as Miranda in ‘Sex In The City’. Both Bell and Nixon, the latter of whom receives more screen time, give remarkable performances capturing the poet’s eccentricity and quick wit. Nixon, in particular, manages to navigate the razor-sharp pithy dialogue that peppers the character in youth, and the more morbid, ponderous outbursts of her later years. Like Davies’ casting of Gillian Anderson as the ill-fated Lily Bart in ‘House Of Mirth’ (2000), Nixon would perhaps not be the obvious first choice to play America’s most notable female poet, yet it is clear she is the right actor for the role.

As with ‘Sunset Song’, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ (2011) and ‘The House Of Mirth’ (2000), ‘A Quite Passion’ continues the exploration of the lot of isolated women, often bound by the conventions of the society and culture to which they belong. Davies explores the theme through a hilarious script, laced with Wildean back and forths, with scenes between Bell and Annette Badland as the uptight and pious Aunt Elizabeth being some of the finest. It is also an opportunity for him to marry his philosophies on religion, life and art with those of Emily Dickinson, including ample screen time for discussing ideas of religious faith.

Davies, who was raised a Catholic and has spoken at length about how he was deeply affected by the experience, blends his and Dickinson’s ideas, especially regarding her irreverence for organised religion. She debates with her lawyer father, portrayed by Keith Carradine, who brings an incredible warm, low growl to his lines, and with the local pastors who she has little interest in pleasing.

Davies makes some impressive visual moves in what is otherwise a low-key production taking place almost exclusively within the confines of the Dickinson household. One of the most notable moments is a time-lapse tableaux of family portraits transforming the characters from their younger to older years. Such an effect would be ridiculous in many directors’ hands, yet in Davies’, this is a beautiful and effective device.

Arguably, the narrative tails off in the third act, losing the momentum as we see Emily’s decline in health, becoming a recluse and only speaking to visitors from the top of her landing while they remain at the foot of the stairs below. This problem is the fate of any biopic where the blistering brilliance of youth falls away to the morbid inevitability of the subject’s demise. Also, there is no denying that this is not a fashionable film – with both literary biopics and costume drama remaining out of vogue – not that creating films that are in fashion has ever been a concern for Davies.

Nonetheless, Davies builds on the themes of his previous work, creating an at-times hilarious, and at others heart-wrenching, biopic, with a captivating lead performance, and strong supporting cast.

Overall verdict: