If Sunset Song, Terence Davies’s other recent feature, is a film of the enduring earth, than A Quiet Passion is a film of the withering body, the mortal coil that wheezes and shakes and is finally shuffled off. Human fragility, of both the corporeal and spiritual variety, haunts Emily Dickinson from the opening moments, in which a puritanical interrogator questions the young poet about her relationship with God and the promise of hell. Religion’s frightening specter shadows even the warmest moments in Davies’s cinema—the terror is a scar, an old spur in his bones—though here it takes on a specifically American character. Quoth New England theologian Jonathan Edwards: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” A gossamer-thin suspension is all that holds Emily Dickinson above the eternal flames.
The signal achievement of A Quiet Passion is to render the world of Dickinson’s New England with burnished clarity, to conjure the specifics of time, place, and ideology from which her art emerges. The intellectual foment of 19th century New England arguably represents the earliest maturity of American thought, a spiritual founding to echo the political founding a half century earlier. Dickinson’s poetry claims a clear piece of this lineage. Less clear are the narrative possibilities offered by her life’s story. Dickinson rarely left the house and Davies’s eye does not violate this cloister. A swirling camera and symphonic music are the director’s instruments, which can elevate even the hard-scrabble existence of a young Liverpudlian to heights of poetry, and here they transfigure the space of the Dickinson estate into a expanse of wallpaper and candlelight, and most importantly, they give remarkable sonorousness to an otherwise hushed life. The spirit of the age lives alone in a room upstairs.
On paper this sounds theoretical—more The American Scholar than “Tell all the truth and tell it slant”—but Davies is constitutionally incapable of making something so dry, and in addition to his trademark romanticism, A Quiet Passion also possess more wit than any other movie this year, save perhaps for Love and Friendship. Early passages provide Ms. Dickinson, and actress Cynthia Nixon, with a roundelay of able sparring partners. The barbs that fly in these scenes occasionally best Whit Stillman at his own game. But if we’re sticking with cinematic references, George Cukor might be more apropos. The classical auteur’s ability to reveal depth of character beneath each perfectly-timed quip gets taken up by Davies here, who understands that Emily Dickinson’s inner life is profoundly rich, though just out of reach for those around her. Humor opens up a window into the poet’s soul, and the fear and trembling that finally beset her are all the more tragic for the spirit they trample out.
A Quiet Passion’s parade of exits (“they all go” is the poet’s summation of solitude) rounds out with Dickinson’s own. The biopic ends where it must, at the grave’s hard, eternal earth, though it should be clear as we arrive at this final resting place that A Quiet Passion is as personal as anything in Davies’s career. Even a cursory knowledge of his life reveals the connection to Dickinson’s: his struggles with his sexuality, his trembling before the void, and the necessary—though always inadequate—consolation provided by his art. “You have your posterity,” Emily’s sister says to comfort her. “And you have your life,” she responds. Dickinson seems willing to trade all the glories of her poetry for a few hours of certain joy and one wonders if Davies, in his old age, might do the same. The world is richer for their abiding beauties, but in the face of mortality the afterlife of art is cold comfort for all their departed, unhappy days.