A QUIET PASSION
Director: Terence Davies
Screenwriter: Terence Davies
Runtime: 125 mins.
Australian release date: 22 June 2017
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 23 May 2017.
“The poetry is so sublime, I think she is America’s greatest poet, and she should be read,” says “Britain’s greatest living director” (according to The Guardian) Terence Davies, discussing Emily Dickinson. With his latest work, A Quiet Passion, Davies has created a film that intimately reveals the suffocating reality of being a free-thinking woman in mid-19th Century New England. In a telling early scene set in her Amherst, Massachusetts, family home, Emily (Cynthia Nixon) seeks permission from her father (Keith Carradine) to stay up in the wee small hours to write - a passion she embraces - during those creative hours of solitude. Thus Davies connects his audience to the reality of a society that not only ignores the rights of women but suppresses their talents and desires under the male thumb of total authority.
Today Emily would undoubtedly be considered a feminist although such labels didn’t exist in her time. She wrote copiously but remained unrecognized during her lifetime except for the publication of a handful of poems, although she composed nearly 1800. She was not looking for public recognition, however, as much as a sense of acceptance. Her relationship with her family was all-encompassing: a homebody, her life revolved around her mother (Joanna Bacon) and father, brother Austin (Duncan Duff) and, particularly, her sister Lavinia aka ‘Vinnie’ (the luminescent Jennifer Ehle). The occasional guest, chiefly her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), added to her small circle of contacts and allowed her to exercise her incisive, if occasionally too trenchant, wit and her penchant for debate. Emily’s conversations with these two women were full of jocularity and passion as they discussed the social conventions of the period. Sadly though, the poet’s later life was shrouded in extreme loneliness and frustration as illness required her to spend more and more time in the reclusive environment of her bedroom and her family and friends moved on. She died prematurely at the age of 55.
Both Nixon and Ehle are superb, taking us deeply into the lives of the women they portray, as does the magnificent production design. It feels as though you’ve stepped into a daguerreotype photograph from the period. Davies has brought a measured and powerful representation of an artist’s life and mind into the 21st century and has magnificently succeeded in cleverly and flawlessly integrating her verse into the narrative. A Quiet Passion is cinema at its finest.