Until now, the British filmmaker Terence Davies has always been his own best subject. His first early short films and the subsequent features—Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes—invented a new kind of cinematic memoir, rendering his rough working-class childhood in Liverpool through a series of complex, formally elegant tableaux and tracking shots. Art-life connectivity is the whole point, since the work we’re watching is a function of the life. The proximity is intimate and painful, and Davies’s cinematic avatars themselves are rarely anything but passive observers—often victims—of their contexts. Take Bud in The Long Day Closes, who feels lucky enough to be able to scrape a few shillings together to go to the movies, let alone dream of making them: he’s a portrait of an artist who does not yet know that’s what he is.
Now Davies has tasked himself with a biopic of Emily Dickinson, a woman who knew she was an artist beyond a shadow of a doubt, and whose biography has been an occasion for a great deal of condescending speculation. How does a life so “quiet” (read: housebound, virginal) produce such cutting and experimental poetry? A more traditional filmmaker might have attempted to sex things up, within reason; for the most part filmmakers simply haven’t bothered. Davies has approached the challenge of rendering Dickinson from the inside; he has felt her as a painfully kindred spirit, and has appropriated her—in the most honorable sense of that word—as a fellow traveller in both malcontented isolation and grasping efforts at transcendence. A Quiet Passion is biography as fellowship.
Viewers needn’t be faulted for finding something a little off about the first half-hour of the film, in which Dickinson is introduced as a scrappy anomaly of verve and independence in provincial 19th-century New England. Davies’s camera is always in the best places, but there’s a fustiness to the performances and the girlhood raillery between Emily and her sister that sets one’s teeth slightly on edge—it’s as if Davies has gone all in on some kind of British Film Institute period-piece playbook. The artifice is quaint, comforting… until a young Dickinson (played by Emma Bell) exclaims, during an argument with her aunt, “Poems are my solace for an eternity that surrounds us all!” and the line cuts through all of it like cold steel. Isn’t eternity supposed to be the solace? If this is how the girl feels now, who will she grow up to be?
The question begins to be answered a few minutes later, in a sequence in which each of the characters sits for a photographic portrait and, with the help of remarkably subtle effects, slowly ages before our eyes. It is an exemplary Davies moment: a clear correlative to the shot of flower petals imperceptibly wilting, darkening, falling to the table in the opening of The Long Day Closes, the sequence is simultaneously elegant and alarming—we end on an aged Emily (now played by Cynthia Nixon) staring coolly back at us, as if to say, “I told you so; now brace yourselves.” And we should; though what follows barely leaves the grounds of the Dickinson home, it is often genuinely harrowing.
For as Davies imagines Dickinson’s adult life (based, it should be said, on scrupulous research), nowhere is his affinity with her clearer than in her stubborn mode of existence in the face of an indifferent God. While everyone around her purports to be rather chummy with the deity, Emily simply cannot capitulate to systems of belief that provide conventional existential relief. Eternity being no solace, corporeality offers no quarter either—the body’s desires are burdensome, as is its ineluctable deterioration. All she has, apart from her family, is her own sensibility: her art. And though her isolation increases—as it does for Davies’s Bud, the staircase eventually becomes a kind of boundary between her and the rest of humanity—the poems continue to flow, missives to both the world and the void. Davies makes sure that we hear plenty of them.
I fear now that I’m making the film sound like a drag, but it’s exactly the opposite—it is funny, frequently effervescent, and walks a tonal tightrope that lets us sympathize deeply with Dickinson’s isolation even as we may blanch at the rigidity and orneriness it produces. Much of Davies’s success in this is due to Nixon, whose Emily is one of the great screen performances in recent years. I do not know what Emily Dickinson was actually like, but Nixon seems to have found such intimate kinship with the life, and to have internalized her research so thoroughly, that the performance almost seems to be taking place in private; Davies’s style is as presentational as can be, but one gets the sense that Nixon’s Emily would be there regardless of anyone watching.
One shot in particular comes to mind, and it’s one of the most beautiful things that Davies has ever put on film (this is saying something). Emily’s doctor has just given her a fatal diagnosis and has left her alone in bed, magic-hour sunlight peeking through the window. She turns her head slightly from the camera, which then begins to creep forward, slowly circling her, moving around the bed and finally onto her face as the sun outside sets, washes unforgivingly over wasted countenance—all the while, we hear Nixon reciting Dickinson’s poem numbered 501, “The World is Not Conclusion…”
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don’t know –
As the camera holds on her face, the poem continues, and Nixon’s look at that moment is something I will never forget; it is not just one of terror, but of profound disappointment in the inevitable. “It beckons, and it baffles.” The sun finally sets, leaving her face in shadow, and at that dark moment Davies’s communion with his subject is at its most complete and transcendent.