BFI LFF 2016: A Quiet Passion (2016)

A Quiet Passion

A portrait of the poet as a young revolutionary, Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion sees a fiercely independent woman martyred.

Stations Of The Cross

by Mark Wilshin

A Quiet Passion

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Let there be no mistake. Terence Davies’ portrait of Emily Dickinson may reveal a quiet passion that sees the American poet refuse religious piety, easy conformity and all manner of male-centred hypocrisy, but the passion here is most certainly a religious one, as we follow Dickinson on her via dolorosa through her rhyming psalms, her loss of her disciples (friends to marriage and family members to death), her fits and pains caused by Bright’s Disease to her grave at the age of 56. And the film has a liturgical progression rather than a dramaturgical one – using Dickinson’s poems and Davies’ own script of aphorisms to provoke a spiritual assault on the senses. But there’s also a lilting cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister and an ecclesiastical score of works from Bellini, Schubert, Strauss and Chopin that pushes the narrative forward like a Holy Mass. Performances by Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle are both pitch-perfect, but it’s really Terence Davies’ dialogue that takes centre stage – occasionally overwhelming in its ceaseless banter but consistently on form. It’s perhaps strange that Davies decides not to pay heed to scholarly rumours of Dickinson’s homosexuality, but in his biopic of an ascetic who, unable to have the world on her terms, withdraws ever more into reclusion, Davies creates an impassioned gospel of suffering and pain. Despite its constant flow of tears, A Quiet Passion remains oddly sober and unemotional, yet a picture undeniably from the hands of an Old Master.

A Quiet Passion screens on 10 and 12 October 2016 at the BFI London Film Festival.

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