Berlinale Review: A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

“Biopics” might be the one genre that raises the most admonitory misgivings in the breast of this reviewer, along with the “Sundance indie”, “summer tent-pole” and “awards-bait costume drama”. These films, per usual, are little more than expensively production-valued pantomimes for actors to scream their guts out and with the lust to win year-end awards seeping out through their pores. An auspicious occurrence then, that this film comes populated with a cast more humble than your usual starry Oscar-bait aspirants and the sense of a tiny budget wholly apparent – you can practically see the pins holding together the meager wardrobe of the actors, either a nice touch of authenticity or the realities of Brit-indie budgeting, take your pick.

A Quiet Passion is, of course, the long-gestating literary biopic of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, and writer-director Terence Davies gives her the Mr. Turner (2014) treatment, so to say – a warts-and-all portrait that seeks more to dramatize the specifics of her life than to deify her as most biopics are inclined to do.

Ample excerpts of her poems are read aloud in voice-over by Cynthia Nixon (playing Dickinson in her old age) interspersed with dialog sequences dramatizing her family life. These latter scenes form the meat of the film and Davies cannily delineates and draws out at length each of the family members closest to her – her two siblings (a very good Jennifer Ehle playing sister Lavinia and Duncan Duff playing brother Austin), her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) and her one dear friend Vryling (a brilliant Catherine Bailey). This is wholly appropriate due to the manner in which Dickinson led her life – holed up as she was, in her house and even her room, for the majority of it. Narrative incident is consequently sparse and scattershot and ranges from visits from guests and cousins to spats with presumptive suitors and family members which seemingly occur at random.

These exchanges are where Davies the writer comes to the fore as he creates dialog here as stylized as anything written by Tarantino. Only the references are far more erudite and the subjects discussed are higher-minded. The circuitous dialog might be too clever by half for casual audiences, but “cultured types” might revel in the complicated and frequently hilarious barbs traded by the characters over a variety of issues. These extended scenes, to the credit of the game cast, are enacted with maximum alacrity and credibility, especially with dialog that doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. These scenes cumulatively illuminate the ocean of insecurity and self-hatred that Dickinson presumably took ritual baths in. They also pointedly communicate her struggle with faith and the latent form of atheism she practiced for much of her life.

What emerges is the portrait of a deeply unhappy and thoroughly thwarted artist who nevertheless persevered and kept on writing her poetry, though there was no solace of adulation to be had during her lifetime (the vast majority of her work was published posthumously).

While Davies the writer was clearly inspired by his subject, Davies the director was apparently not and directorially speaking, Davies registers one of his least formally interesting films to date (some early long takes and slow zooms notwithstanding). As the film is essentially dialog scenes interspersed with montages of daily life, the film finds him operating strictly within the conventional biopic format. Better directors than him have made worse biopics, and it sometimes begs the question, why do filmmakers even attempt biopics? That you find an artist interesting does not render their life story cinematic or dramatic. The perverse urge to insinuate that everything in an artist’s life contributes to their art seems at once opportunistic and ultimately reductive – the sum total of cinematic biopics would seem to imply that there is no imagination in the human mind and all we can do is exorcise our demons through our art.

Be that as it may, Davies acquits himself better than many at this most impossible of genres and the film is certainly worth your time. Apart from the curious choice of having Dickinson, played by the beauteous Emma Bell in her youth, transform into a haggard (made up so) Cynthia Nixon in her old age, the character is well portrayed and Nixon especially delivers a spirited lead performance that refuses to render Dickinson as an overtly sympathetic figure. The supporting cast is likewise very strong and the recreation of the period is satisfactory if not extraordinary, the film basically being limited to “people talking (arguing) in rooms”.