Perhaps this is the best way to make a film about Emily Dickinson, whose life was certainly not dramatic in any conventional sense but whose poetry spoke of a rich inner life. Dickinson was an iconoclast and intellectual rebel who never married and rarely left the house. There is the threat of scandal in A Quiet Passion, the intimation of improper romance, but confrontations are usually quelled after little more than raised voices. Dickinson’s passions – for her verse, her principles, and her family – are indeed quiet, as are her agonies, but Davies’s style brings them to the fore with near-weird brilliance.
A lot of the strangeness is due to the script (by Davies), in which every character has the gift of serious gab. The consistently high level of wit feels unnatural, but it fits in with the film’s odd aesthetic – and, anyway, it’s a true sparkling pleasure: a barrage of raised-eyebrow one-upmanship epigrams. The actors – led by a superb Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson – do almost excessive justice to their lines, delivering the zingers with more fruitiness than a lorry-load of tangerines. They enunciate so crisply that the dialogue track fairly pops and hisses with plosives and sibilants, the smart cracks of whip-smart repartee.
Emma Bell as young Emily Dickinson
It’s as though A Quiet Passion started as an unusually cerebral Radio 4 play – the actors only appearing in front of the camera afterwards, lip-synching along to their pre-recorded dialogue, and Davies making the visuals especially potent to justify their inclusion (you could watch A Quiet Passion with your eyes closed and still follow the plot). One surreal and wordless scene, involving little more than a man walking upstairs, does a superb job of conveying the contradictory chaste-yet-erotic ecstasy of Dickinson’s poetry. Another dialogue-free scene is a montage of the Dickinson family individually posing for photographs, each ageing in a matter of seconds even as their likenesses are preserved.
The most famous lines of Dickinson’s poetry are ‘Because I could not stop for Death - / He kindly stopped for me’, and mortality is everywhere in A Quiet Passion, culminating in a couple of unflinching deathbed scenes that go beyond the usual perfunctory expirations (during which the actor finishes an important sentence, gasps, and goes decorously limp). It’s the perfect way to end a film that’s so good at showing that even the quietest life has some intensity before it’s extinguished.
|What||A Quiet Passion film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
07 Apr 17 – 07 Jun 17, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|