A Quiet Passion review: A potential career-best from both director Terence Davis and actress Cynthia Nixon. The toast of Berlinale so far.
A Quiet Passion review, Berlin Film Festival, 2016. Where to begin with celebrated filmmaker Terence Davies‘ latest, A Quiet Passion? For one, we note that it is his second film to hit screens in just a matter of months following last year’s brilliant A Sunset Song. For a filmmaker who made just one film in the twelve years between 1995 and 2008, it’s quite something, but something that is truly welcomed. Here, the accomplished writer/ director delves into the little known world of prolific American poet Emily Dickinson.
The film charts the teenage life of the poet, portrayed in the earlier years by Emma Bell (Frozen, Final Destination 5), and in her latter years by Cynthia Nixon (James White, Sex and the City). A known recluse, Dickinson wasn’t famous during her own lifetime, and indeed only one photograph of her survives; an image that writer and director Davies has stated that he used, along with the 1800 or so pieces of poetry, to construct his screenplay – one that he wrote with Nixon in mind. As there is so little known about Dickinson, Davies has revealed that he read six biographies of the poet, and drew inspiration from her writings and painting a literal picture with his interpretations of how they came to be.
The majority of Davies’ film takes place on the Dickinson family’s Amherst, Massachusetts home in the early 19th century, a place where she lived with her siblings following attending the Amherst Academy nearby. An introverted character, Dickinson often wrote about society, but actually withdrew herself from it and was rarely seen, but continued to send letters and correspondence with the outside world. She was actually quite prolific in her writings; both letters and poetry, her poems often appearing in local publications. Davies cleverly charts her life; her interactions with a local clergyman named Charles Wadworth, her devastation as he leaves for a new life in San Fransisco with his wife, and her subsequent intolerance towards her brother as she discovers his infidelity.
As you may expect from a Terence Davies film, A Quiet Passion is expertly crafted; every word of every sentence poured over and every shot like a painting (the cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister, who worked with Davies on The Deep Blue Sea, is sublime).
There is firm acting support from the likes of Jennifer Ehle, a brilliant Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Duncan Duff and Catherine Bailey, but it is Nixon who mesmerises in a career-best role as Dickinson. It’s another example of the actress undergoing a career transformation with her work of late – see also a scene stealing supporting role in last year’s BFI London Film Festival favourite James White. She is flawless in this film with every word spoken like a note from a perfectly tuned instrument, played perfectly from Davies’s entrancing score. Reserved a spot at next year’s Oscars.
A Quiet Passion is a worthy addition to small, but perfectly formed career portfolio of Davis, and could just be his best film for many years.
A Quiet Passion review by Paul Heath at the Berline Film Festival, 2016.
A Quiet Passion will be released in UK cinemas in September 2016.