The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognized artist.
After the disappointment of of “Sunset Song” Terence Davies has made a storming comeback with “A Quiet Passion”, though it is quietude rather than ‘storming’ that is most applicable. Expect nothing more or less from Davies than more of the same, of course. Davies makes slow films and “A Quiet Passion” is no different from anything else he has given us nor would we want it to be. This time his subject is the poet Emily Dickinson and this is easily one of the greatest of all period films.
Davies sketches Dickinson’s life in a series of brush strokes from rebellious youth to painful death in early middle-age through a series of short, sharp conversation scenes, mostly with members of her own family together with readings from her poetry and the detail he packs into these scenes is extraordinary. He is helped in this by his brilliant cast. What we have here is an ensemble performance of the highest order; from the supporting cast it’s almost impossible to single anyone out though I doubt if either Keith Carradine or Jennifer Ehle have ever been better while Cynthia Nixon is quite magnificent as Dickinson.
Nothing she has done in the past quite prepares you for this; it’s an indelible performance as fine, indeed, as Gillian Anderson’s in “The House of Mirth” but then Davies has always been a great director of women, going all the way back to “Distant Voices, Still Lives”. Perhaps this has something to do with his sexuality, perhaps not; perhaps his being a gay man has nothing to do with anything, though one only has to look to Cukor to see a connection.
He is also a remarkably fine writer with a perfect ‘ear’ for dialogue regardless of the period in which his films are set. Of course, “A Quiet Passion” won’t light up the sky when it comes to the box-office. This is a film for aficionados but anyone willing to embrace its multitudinous charms will be amply rewarded. Personally, I think it’s a masterpiece.