Legends linger because reckoning with art is difficult. Emily Dickinson’s penchant for wearing white and her purported reclusiveness, even her habit of writing her poems on cards and bundling them – reckoning with these points is a way of avoiding the typographic mysteries of “The Tint I cannot take — is best,” never mind its philosophical implications. I’ve been reading Dickinson since I was twelve and have taught her several times; those miracles of gnomic compression puzzled my students without repelling them, and I threw up my hands once or twice before “The Tint” and its companions, as clueless. The results, to quote Adrienne Rich’s essential “Vesuvius at Home,” were hundreds of poems “more compressed, more dense with implications, more complex of syntax, than any American poetic language to date.”
About the worst I can say about A Quiet Passion is its title: I imagine a Precious Moments picture frame in which a likeness of the Belle of Amherst beams mild and unblinking at observers. The rest of Terence Davies’ picture is gripping and, often, maddening, like Dickinson herself. First, even readers familiar with Dickinson’s letters and Richard B. Sewall’s pioneering biography will have trouble considering her a cut-up. In the first half hour and intermittently thereafter Davies has written a comedy of manners closer to Congreve or even Wilde, with the rebellious young poet, abetted by her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle) and the vivacious Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), the movie’s Lady Bracknell, rejecting the abjectness of the New England Christian tradition. “Let us not be anything today except superficial,” Emily says to Ms Buffam as they enter a ball. Her friend doesn’t miss a beat: “Yes, and superficiality should always be spontaneous; if it is studied, it is too close to hypocrisy.” While the repartee is welcome, Davies presses the hilarity; the shots are held too long, the actors sparkle rather proudly. At least when Whit Stillman adapted a minor Austen novel it was a movie very much in character.
But Davies, whose recent fecundity is welcome, is a director given to dollies laden with longing and ecstatic musical sequences that sublimate his characters’ suppressed desires – an otherwise happy choice for the material. The spaces in Dickinson’s poetry, denoted by her manipulation of that flexible, suggestive punctuation mark known as the dash, get visual equivalents. With Cynthia Nixon as Emily, the actress often reading her poems in voice-over, the pent-up energy oozes from her shoulders and taut neck muscles. Viewers who may balk at such a putatively modern performer cast in a period role may remember her small role as Mozart’s traitorous maid in Amadeus, voice atremble with anxiety. A Quiet Passion is one of the few recent films to understand the intense unerotic attachments of women: Dickinson, to quote Rich again, was “equally attracted by and interested in women whose minds had something to offer her.” The film’s most luminous sequence stars Emily and Susan Gilbert, wife of brother Austin. As cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister frames them in candlelight, Nixon and Johdi May (too long gone), outline the course of Emily’s life. “Rigor is no substitute for happiness,” Susan observes.
The other thing Davies captures is the degree to which a soul as rigorous as Emily’s finds nourishment in family. In one of the high comedy sequences that occur early in the film, Austin and Vinny join forces with Emily to put an officious aunt, herself a scribbler of verse, in her place after expressing the conventional shock at the apostasy of Emily’s own poetry. “All the best verses are dubious,” Emily insists. So are the best families. Susan, Davies makes clear, is not much interested in sex with men, or at least not with Austin, who as a result – the film is clear about causality – starts an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens), the woman most responsible, in one of life’s delightful ironies, for presenting Dickinson’s verse for world consumption by bowdlerizing it (if you read Dickinson in high school, it’s likely you read Todd’s edits; she recoils from the dash as others do from shellfish).
When Davies’ director soul selects its own society, it shuts the door, and, like Dickinson, is most himself: a closeup held for an agonizing minute as the Reverend Wadsworth, a swollen and pedantic young man onto whom Dickinson projects a non-existent intelligence, reads or rather chews on one of her poems; the sympathy that Davies bestows on Emily Norcross, the poet’s severe and much misunderstood mother; the elegance of a Pieta of suffering as Vinnie and Emily frame their bedridden mother, dying, much like the father in Davies’ previous film Sunset Song, in a stroke-induced agony; Dickinson herself writhing on bed from the Bright’s disease that will eventually kill her, the camera at a polite distance. A Quiet Passion doesn’t resolve the question of whether he agreed with Vinnie’s judgment: “Your anger is, I think, a defense against the world.” The “I think” is a strategic interjection, for it’s clear that Susan believes it is. Less sympathetic viewers or those primed by pop psychology to see “issues” in every emotional nuance will watch Emily’s caustic interactions with suitors and agree with Susan too. The root of the problem, it seems, is the difficulty every filmmaker from Vincente Minnelli to David Cronenberg has faced of presenting a writer’s interiority, the imagination moving over the face of the waters.
But Davies tries anyway. When A Quiet Passion thrills, which is often, give him the credit. Imagining Apichatpong Weerasethakul or the late Raul Ruiz handling this project with a similar visual imagery is easy, but only Davies understands the sensuousness of words, of the way Dickinson, to cite one her most incisive poems, dealt “her pretty words like blades,” everyone unbaring a nerve. And the movie boasts one of those slow delirious camera movements for which the Davies of The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth, and Sunset Song is renowned: a pan to fade from opera music to Emily’s blue-tinted bedroom, her back to the audience. Replenishing herself with other people’s art, she returns to the task before her: the writing of another poem. “You are alone in your rebellion, Ms. Dickinson,” a stern clergyman had warned her. In creation too.