A Quiet Passion

 

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A filmmaker of today pays his tribute to a poet of the past, her life and her work.

 
A Quiet Passion
 

Terence Davies is a filmmaker who is and always has been an artist. Not only is he possessed of real talent but - and this is equally important - he has always been loyal to that talent, making only the films that he was born to make regardless of fashion. He has never compromised his personal vision and inevitably he has paid the price for his integrity when finance for projects has not been forthcoming. That led to a long gap in his output (only one film between 1995 and 2008) but of late he has compensated for that and A Quiet Passion is his fourth film in nine years following on quickly from Sunset Song (2015). It's a film that contains two unexpected elements but it could have been made by nobody else.

 

Written by Davies, this film expresses his admiration for the American poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) who lived from 1830 to 1896. Hers was a quiet life spent with her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), a much loved sister (Jennifer Ehle) and a brother (Duncan Duff) whose behaviour would dismay her when he was unfaithful to his wife (Jodhi May). Emily's limited opportunities to get her poetry published reflected her situation as a woman living in Amherst, Massachusetts in the middle of the 19th century. The conventions of the period would also lead her independently minded friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) to yield eventually to marrying as expected.

 

The lot of women as portrayed here may mean that A Quiet Passion has appeal for feminists, but the film also recognises the loss that Emily felt in never finding a suitable man to marry. However, despite passing conflicts and the father's staunchly held traditional outlook as patriarch, Davies has created a portrait of a loving family whose closeness is celebrated in his film. There is no sentimentality but a depth of feeling beneath a surface of exquisite refinement. It leads to two deathbed scenes with family members in attendance and these carry an almost religious intensity. The acting is superb and, while the playing is that of a company functioning as an ensemble, it is the perfect casting of Nixon in the central role that carries the film.

 

I indicated that there were two fresh aspects in this film. The fact that life for the Dickinsons as shown here led to illnesses and deaths makes for the sadness that one might expect in the film's later stages : the surprise is that the lively intelligence of the people enables Davies to write dialogue for the film's first half is that is  driven by a Wildean wit. In this respect A Quiet Passion brings to mind Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship (2016). The other feature to be noted is that, while his visual fastidiousness and acute sense for the apt use of music remain as strong as ever, Davies here plays down that part of his art that has sometimes verged on the self-conscious. He has now reached his seventies and the pared down style of A Quiet Passion could be the start of a fresh phase in his work, a late period. Towards the close of the film, developments concerning Emily's brother prevent the film from moving directly to its denouement and structurally that feels like a weakness. But it's a minor one and, while A Quiet Passion may suffer at the box-office from its rejection of everything that is trendy in present day cinema, it counts as one of Davies's finest achievements to date.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Rose Williams, NoĆ©mie Schellens.

 

Dir Terence Davies, Pro Solon Papadopoulos and Roy Boulter, Screenplay Terence Davies, Ph Florian Hoffmeister, Pro Des Merijn Sep, Ed Pia Di Ciaula, Costumes Catherine Marchand.

 

Hurricane Films/Potemkino/Scope Pictures/WeatherVane Productions/Gibson & MacLeod/Screen Flanders-Soda Pictures.
125 mins. UK/Belgium/USA. 2016. Rel: 7 April 2017. Cert. 12A.