Severe, demanding and beautiful

A Quiet Passion

Written and directed by Terence Davies

125 minutes, rated PG

4 stars

When one artist makes a film about another artist, you can be reasonably sure that the first sees something of a mirror in the second. That’s true here in Terence Davies’ beautiful, formally demanding and quite searing portrait of the poet Emily Dickinson.

Cheerful she was not, although the film has lots of wit in the first half, before gloom and fear of death turn Emily (played by Cynthia Nixon, an odd but inspired choice) into a recluse and something of a banshee. Davies says he was initially attracted by the poems, then by the circumstances of her life – her courage, and the fact that one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century had barely a dozen poems published during her life. ‘I’m drawn to creative people who are not recognised,’ he told the LA Times.

He’s also drawn to the gloom of her life in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent almost her entire life (1830-1886). Actually he loves her melancholy, perhaps more than is fair, and with her lack of success (to which she contributed by refusing most offers to publish when they eventually came). There’s a reasonable argument that Davies’ own gloom may have distorted this part of her life. She was active in the house, a superb gardener (having studied biology) and more romantically involved in later years – admittedly by correspondence – than we see here.

I don’t criticise him for that. Davies is the best unknown director working in Britain, the author of at least three masterpieces (Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes and Sunset Song, his most recent film before this). If he wants to make a crepuscular film about a great artist who fears death, that’s alright with me. The one thing you can expect from him is that he will aim high and true. Being gay and fairly unhappy himself (‘Whatever optimism I had was killed as a child’), a refugee from Catholicism, gives him the kind of artistic courage that almost always kills a film career. That he has survived the lean and mean years in British film funding to be prospering at 72, his output lately being somewhat prolific, is kind of miraculous.

Apart from the awful title, the film offers great formal beauty. Davies takes advantage of the pressure to be gained from enclosure. Emily’s early years are happy, although she knows it will not last. Her doting father Edward (Keith Carradine) believes in education for girls, even if she does offend him with her impiety; her sister Lavinia (known as Vinnie, played by the always good Jennifer Ehle) reassures her about her fears that she will never marry. Her somewhat severe mother (Joanna Bacon) is offset by an affectionate brother, Austin (Duncan Duff). Davies makes their dialogue theatrical, rather than colloquial. He wants a sense that this tiny stage is its own world.

Quite what troubles Emily is hard to know; it is certainly physical as well as mental. Nixon’s performance brings home the pain of both. If the film demands a lot of the viewer, it demands more of her and she is very good. So is everyone else. Davies is renowned for his care with actors.

Audiences love the film less than critics, apparently. Yes, it’s slow and demanding, but the best films often are. Davies uses a camera as a means to both beauty and terror, if that be the truth of what he is dramatising. In this case, the deterioration of Emily Dickinson is indeed terrifying, as her grief and illness make her bitter and harsh. It’s a very American kind of story in that way. She ends up writhing in pain and fear, seemingly alone in a big dark house. Like Elvis, like Michael Jackson, like Norma Desmond.