Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion (2016) opens with Miss Lyon (Sara Vertongen), the headmistress of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, grimly reciting the options available to the seminary’s students: “Those of you who wish to be Christian and saved will move to my right. To those of you who remain, and hope to be saved, you will move to my left.” Exhibiting a resolute determination beyond her 17 years, Emily (Emma Bell) remains standing in the middle. However, when cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister cuts to a close-up, the framing of Emily’s face is intriguing decentred. Chastised by Miss Lyon for being “alone in [her] rebellion,” Emily remains slightly to the right of the frame – alluding at once to her refusal to unquestioningly conform, as well as to her resolve to carve out her own unique place in the world.

Having immersed himself in six biographies on the American poet, Davies’ charting of Dickinson’s life in A Quiet Passion – from her final days in the seminary to her premature death at the age of 55 – unfolds as an intimate portrait specifically intended “to be from her point of view.”1 Intimacy is primarily derived through Dickinson’s poetry, which periodically manifests as a disembodied presence that floats over the film’s action. Emily’s poetic voice-over first enters the film as she longingly gazes out a window in the seminary; however, it is not the voice of the young Emily, but the adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon), whom the viewer has yet to meet, who recites Poem 125: “For each ecstatic instant / We must an anguish pay / In keen and quivering ratio / To the ecstasy.” As the voice-over gestures to an older version of Emily than the one on-screen, Davies establishes a disjuncture between time and place that eschews verisimilitude, but attends to his sustained engagement in the private emotional geographies of his films’ characters, creating what Jonathan Rosenbaum categorises as “a cinema of raw feelings.”2

As only 11 of Dickinson’s close-to-1800 poems were published during her lifetime, their recitation in the film does not function simply as voice-over decoration, but serves as a form of correspondence between Emily and the viewer.3 Although her poems were largely unrecognised and published anonymously while she was alive, scholars have uncovered the circulation of her work in letters that, according to Mary Loeffelholz, reframed her poetry as a “gift, as flirtatious token, as intervention in grief and anger.”4 An instance of this gift-giving occurs in the film when Emily slips one of her hand-bound poetry books from the sleeve of her dress as an offering to Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), whose sermons have moved her deeply. It is in this spirit of private disclosure that Davies structures the film through Nixon’s readings. Unable to locate her literary audience in the 1800s, Davies reimagines the viewer as Emily’s confidant and recipient of her words. Just as the viewer witnesses Emily hand-sewing her tiny books of poetry, Davies stitches together her biography, with each poetic voice-over another stitch of thread binding the film together.

In privileging Emily’s poetic voice, Davies, who also wrote the screenplay, provides an unlikely space of feminine dissent. Early in the film, the correspondence received from Dr. Holland (Steve Dan Mills) – the editor of the Springfield Republican, who begrudgingly agrees to publish one of her poems – establishes the phallocentric literary environment she was forced to confront: “Women, I fear, cannot create affirmative treasures of literature.” Emily’s continued dedication to her craft is most ironically summed up when she counters a detractor of female writing with the statement that the Brontë sisters would crochet, “if they wished to be wholesome.” Emily’s awareness of the undervalued position of women – the life of whom she delineates as “neither congenial or trivial” – becomes more acutely felt in the film’s diminishing colour palette, whereby the verdant beauty of the Dickinson Homestead’s garden and the subdued pastels of the finery worn at social gatherings slowly give way to muted tones.

Wheeler Winston Dixon describes Davies’ oeuvre as “spare and austere,” and defined by “lush pictorial continuity, severely sculptural lighting, and deeply felt sense of color.”5 Davies’ predilection for employing colour as an emotional register is evident in the film’s only dream sequence, in which Emily imagines a potential suitor (Dorian Salkin) who “will mount the stairs at midnight.” Emily’s bedroom door opens to display her waiting by lamplight before the image transitions to that of a silhouetted gentleman standing on the threshold of the Homestead. The imagining of his slow ascent up the stairs reveals a sensuality that is buried beneath Emily’s rigorous morality; however, the spell of the fantasy is broken as the identity of the man is left undisclosed in the shadowy darkness. In contrast with early scenes featuring her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), which are resplendent in colour, Davies depicts Emily’s sexual desires as being darkly smothered. As the fantasy sequence concludes, the camera reverse pans out of Emily’s bedroom and the door closes, indicating both the literal and metaphorical shutting off of her desires.

The architectural framing of characters enclosed by door and window frames that is employed throughout the film visualises Dickinson’s self-imposed isolation within the interiors of her family home while also echoing the restrictions that she experienced as both a woman and a writer. Although Dickinson scholar Jonnie Guerra notes that A Quiet Passion is “not reliable as autobiography,” Davies “succeeds in evoking the spirit of a great poet and, equally important, in making her story matter.”6 Davies paints a 19th-century feminist whose refined yet defiant subversion is manifest in her wearing white to symbolise mourning, smashing a dirty plate so that “it is dirty no longer” and stating that “any argument about gender is war because that too is slavery.” Despite this apparent strength, Davies is also sensitive to Emily’s frailties – her attachment to her family, her undiagnosed illnesses and her refusal to connect with people beyond the written word. Towards the end of the film, Emily asks in the poem “This Is My Letter to the World” that she be judged tenderly; Davies’ A Quiet Passion eloquently honours this request.

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A Quiet Passion (2016 United Kingdom/Belgium/United States/Canada 125 mins)

Prod. Co: Gibson & MacLeod, WeatherVane Productions, Screen Flanders, Enterprise Flanders, Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF) Prod: Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos Dir: Terence Davies Scr: Terence Davies Phot: Florian Hoffmeister Ed: Pia Di Ciaula Prod. Des: Merijn Sep Set Dec: Ilse Willocx Cos. Des: Catherine Marchand    

Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Joanna Bacon

Endnotes:

  1. Terence Davies, quoted in Maria Garcia, “The Quiet Passion of Emily Dickinson: An Interview with Terence Davies,” Cinéaste, vol. 42, no. 3 (Summer 2017): pp. 25–6.
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 396.
  3. Mary Loeffelholz, The Value of Emily Dickinson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 6.
  4. ibid., p. 5.
  5. Wheeler Winston Dixon, ed., “The Long Day Closes: An Interview with Terence Davies” in Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 249–50.
  6. Jonnie Guerra, “A Quiet Passion dir. by Terence Davies (Review),” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 26.1 (2017): p. 90.