Director: Terence Davies
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Catherine Bailey, Miles Richardson
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“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.”
Poetry is something that you don’t see on screen all that much. And when you do, there’s often the question of how to present it. A Quiet Passion does away with any indecision and simply dives right in, with Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) reading out her own verse, often over the top of images that literally match what she’s saying. It sounds like an obvious approach, but that’s at the core of what director Terence Davies achieves with A Quiet Passion: he brings out the heart behind Dickinson’s writing, slowly sketching out a portrait of growing bitterness, increasing isolation and tragic illness.
Davies does so with a surprisingly light touch, skipping from her rebellious youth at a strict Christian school to her outspoken coming-of-age in her equally religious family. Witty conversations with her friend, Miss Buffam (a scene-stealing Catherine Bailey), are laugh-out-loud funny, as they criticise society, art, life and other people. An afternoon tea with the local vicar (Miles Richardson) is hilariously awkward.
Cynthia Nixon, meanwhile, is remarkable in the lead, moving from that cheerful, lively lady to a frustrated recluse with heartbreaking immediacy. Davies’ direction takes its cue from her devoted performance, and his camera draws closer to her, capturing the prison and claustrophobia of her suffering – her seizures are horribly painful to watch. The result is a chamber drama that uses every inch of its interior setting to find new emotional depths, exploring the nuanced contradiction of Dickinson’s sadness and loneliness with the creative freedom and independence it brings.
While suitors cross her doorstep, encouraged by her sister, Vinnie (a wonderful Jennifer Ehle), Emily seems torn between love and marital conventions expected by the world and the elusive literary posterity she seeks in her work – a rebuke of its own to the notion of a spiritual afterlife that she has no truck with. A sense of melancholy slowly suffocates her interactions with everyone, as her soul selects its own society and shuts the door on the rest, and yet it gives life to profound, sad, beautiful and witty art that ultimately refused to stop for anyone, including death. Poetry has rarely seemed so natural.
A Quiet Passion is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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