Review of A Quiet Passion, by Ieuan Jones. Showing in our cinema 28 April – 4 May, tickets available now.
Allow me a moment or two to make the case for Terence Davies to stand among the greatest living British filmmakers. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Danny Boyle and co share most of the (frequently deserved) plaudits for their works. But there are those of us who – quietly – champion the man behind such greats as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Of Time and the City (2008) and Sunset Song (2015).
A Quiet Passion is a late period piece from Davies (he is 71), but if it is his swansong – or near enough – then he will be going out on an all-time high. It is a biopic of the poet Emily Dickinson, who lived in seclusion almost all of her life in Massachusetts during the nineteenth century. In the opening we see her (portrayed by Emma Bell) at a seminary crossing verbal swords with a stern matriarch. Even at that young age she already has all the qualities she will bring with her into adulthood – precocious, sharp, pensive and witty.
Dickinson settles back into a sedentary life of family, church, promenades and tea dances at her home in Amherst. Her life has a small girdle, but it is entirely her own. As she grows older (now played by Cynthia Nixon) her love for poetry becomes all-consuming. It is one of this film’s many, many virtues that Davies manages to find space in the drama for her poetic voice in a way that feels entirely natural. Just one example is when she recites “I’m nobody! Who are you?” to her new-born niece (“How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog”).
But as the years wear on this lifestyle becomes a burden. The clever repartee of her youth eventually sours into bitterness and reproachfulness towards her family and, to cap it all, she becomes increasingly withdrawn due to illness (she suffered from Bright’s disease later in life). One by one, friendships and attempts at companionship drift away and leave her all alone. It is an interesting point made within the film regarding the way her life, or indeed anyone’s life, develops and whether her path is chosen by her, or for her.
As quiet as the passions it is depicting may be, I honestly cannot recall the last time I was so completely bowled over from watching such a sublime rendering of such a simple narrative. The performances are all excellent, the writing is outstanding and the direction is inch perfect, steeped with sun but filled with shadows, much like Dickinson’s life. If A Quiet Passion isn’t the best film this year I will scoff down my white cotton bonnet.
Ieuan Jones is a freelance writer living and working in Plymouth