Though Terence Davies was absent from the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2015, his Emily Dickinson film A Quiet Passion makes its appearance this year and finds the English director in fine form. Like Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, this is a poet-biopic that, coincidentally, also makes impressive use of Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” That’s where similarities end though: Larrain’s ironic formal bravado is a world away from Davies’s deeply felt emotion. The latter’s film begins with the most enormous of questions: “Do you wish to come to God and be saved?” It then traces significant moments in Dickinson’s life, with Davies’ characteristic formal grace (twice, a patient, circling camera observes a candlelit room to stunning effect) and somewhat uncharacteristic humor, largely in the form of the poet’s quick wit (skilfully deployed by Cynthia Nixon in the lead).
Despite the ostensible levity (which may bring to mind Whit Stillman’s recent Love & Friendship) and overt biographical nature, the film is as personal an elegy as any Davies has made, the central notion of beauty and art as “something pressed from truth”—a phrase that could aptly describe any of his films, from the melodic melancholy of Distant Voices, Still Lives to transcendent memory play The Long Day Closes—permeating throughout. Though not as structurally daring as those early works and not without its concessions to staid biopic conventions, it remains rapturous—a sequence that imagines a suitor mounting “her stairs at midnight” ranks among the director’s finest moments. It’s also to Davies’s and Nixon’s credit that the sorrow of Dickinson’s life is never doused by cheap, present-tense vindication. Dickinson’s “ruthless” integrity, her struggle with matters of the soul, and her “embittered” nature—all are contemplated with a moving, tragic clarity. As the script observes, clarity is not at all the same as obviousness. Davies certainly knows the difference.
Published as part of Vancouver International Film Festival 2016 | Dispatch 2.