One great artist engages with another in A Quiet Passion, a bold and brilliant study of the American poet Emily Dickinson by British writer-director Terence Davies. The film is as strange, in its way, as its lead character’s inimitable way with words: Structurally it resembles a straightforward biopic, following Dickinson—played by Emma Bell in the early scenes and a marvelous, moving Cynthia Nixon for the rest—from her brief tenure as a defiant Mount Holyoke student (“a no-hoper” says her scold of a headmistress) through her sequestered life, and eventual kidney-related death, at the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Within this familiar A-to-B form, however, Davies does almost nothing obvious.
Start with the way A Quiet Passion’s characters speak in an erudite, self-aware patois that makes the 19th-century setting seem that much more alien. From an early exchange: “I prefer to remain silent. That way the prejudice doesn’t seem like an opinion,” observes Dickinson’s mother (Joanna Bacon). “That reply was so sphinxlike I’m none the wiser,” says an admonishing relative. Much of the dialogue twists itself in similarly elliptical and resonant curlicues; its closest parallel might be David Milch’s ornate, if much more profane, repartee on the HBO series Deadwood. If the wit of the characters’ discourse is always self-evident, the full meaning tends to lag a half-step behind. It’s wordplay as one-two punch, and there’s a not unpleasant degree to which you’re always playing catchup to what’s being said.
Davies treats the first half of the film as something of a screwball comedy, with Dickinson as the (mostly) straight woman to the Amherst rogues’ gallery. At the center of these scenes is the brazenly independent Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a tell-it-like-it-is teacher who becomes fast friends with Dickinson. She doesn’t seem like a real person so much as an idealized projection—the superficially self-confident being that Dickinson, in her darkest moments, longs to be. And, therefore, not long for this world. As the story takes a turn away from fleeting hope and promise to overwhelming depression and despair, Buffam and those in whom Dickinson places her shaky faith in humanity take their leave—not necessarily via death, though the specter of that one great inevitability certainly hangs over the film.
“They all go!” Dickinson screams at an especially low point, as her friends and family seem to be abandoning her left and right. Davies is interested in how time presses on his characters’ souls. How can something so abstract pass in what seems like an instant, and yet leave such lasting emotional devastation in its wake? In what should rank as one of the finest sequences in his career, Davies shows the Dickinson family posing for daguerreotypes. As his camera pushes toward them, each character—with the aid of some subtle digital morphs and, with one exception, a change of performer—ages several decades in a few seconds. This is most pronounced in the case of Dickinson’s brother Austin, who goes from a beautiful pillow-lipped youth (Benjamin Wainwright) to a plain-looking middle-aged-man (Duncan Duff)—the ravages of time filtered through Davies’s emphatically queer sensibility.
And there’s more—so much more than can be adequately explored in a hastily penned festival report. Davies’s film rarely lack for density of theme, allusion, and effect. I love, for example, how cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister occasionally frames characters as if they’re being measured for their own coffins. (This lends heft to a later image: a freshly dug grave photographed lyrically from above, suggesting a long gaze into the final abyss.) There’s also the poetic and provocative interlude that collapses the entire Civil War into a series of still photographs, battlefield statistics, and the decimated flags of the Union and Southern States flying on an abstractly visualized battlefield. And, finally, the sequence in which Dickinson—self-exiled to her bedroom, longing for that last sweet release—dreams of a visit from a faceless suitor who might very well be Death, only to have him vanish in her haze of wakeful regret. The end never comes easily.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.