With A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies has possibly made the perfect film about Emily Dickinson – a film that doesn’t claim to be a total adaptation of her life and work, but instead exudes a profound affinity, at every level, for the life that was suggested through her work. While the film may follow Dickinson from her schooling to her death, it is relatively disinterested in explaining her poems, or depicting them as arising from her biography in a regular or naturalistic way. Instead, Davies tries to envisage her as a speaker, and as an embodied presence, taking its cues from one of her friends who observes to her, early on, that “you don’t demonstrate: you reveal.” Couched in a superb cast that includes Keith Carridine as Edward Dickinson, Duncan Duff as Austin Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Vinnie Dicksinson, Cynthia Nixon puts in the performance of her career to capture the cadences of Emily’s speech, and their inextricability from the broader awryness of the American accent – and especially the New England accent – as it stood at this point in time.
While we may be used to Dickinson’s poems on a printed page, then, A Quiet Passion seeks to remind us of how unusual they must have sounded when read out for the first time. Although the poems themselves are only read in interludes between scenes – we see very little of Dickinson’s writing process – the entire film is extrapolated from their structure, as Davies strives to capture the deep silence and looming voids of her trademark dashes, but also the playful restlessness that contoured and surrounded them. From the very beginning, that alternation – Dickinson’s poetic signature – is framed in terms of the Puritan austerity and sparseness that suffuses her small New England town of Amherst, where so much seems to stand or fall on the spaces between words, the right time to speak and the right time to be silent. For that reason, Dickinson’s irreverence and playfulness, which dominates the early scenes, is most pronounced when it comes up against Puritan doctrine, as Davies consciously resists the repressive hypothesis of Dickinson’s life, which tends to paint her as a transplanted Bronte, and instead presents her in a perpetual state of bliss and good humour. Combined with the comically awkward timing, the offbeat sense of play and comedy, and the recourse to awry zingers and one-liners, that often makes Dickinson feel like the first screwball heroine to take solace in the New England woods, at least in these early scenes, which recall Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship more than anything else in Davies’ career, which is typically far more sombre, brooding and introspectively configured.
At first, Dickinson’s manner seems like an affront to Puritanism, and is certainly understood that way by the more orthodox members of her community. Yet as the opening act proceeds, it becomes clear that she has simply internalised the optimism, conviction and expectation of Puritanism regarding the immortality of the soul, albeit in a more sophisticated, awry and joyous manner than any of her contemporaries. Rigorous and meticulous – two words used a lot – in “matters of the soul,” she takes a continual pleasure in her spiritual life, in the deepest and fullest sense of herself, exuding a lust for life that alternates with moments of deep repose, and a profound and abiding calm. Evincing an utter delight in discourse, debate and sociability, she offers one brilliant witticism after another and – perhaps more importantly – encourages the women around her to indulge in one brilliant witticism after another, telling one friend that “your honesty is sublime,” in one of the most rarefied depictions of joy I have ever seen committed to the big screen. In the process, Davies reinvents, or rediscovers, her poetry as camp, albeit camp of the most refined kind; playful and provocative in the name of truths that normally remain unspoken.
That is not so say, of course, that Dickinson finds her society congenial to her values, even in these opening scenes. Yet even her anger is burnished through this joy in her own soul, while her most strenuous responses to Puritan orthodoxy are always pervaded with an even more abiding sense of Puritan conviction and expectation, with the result that her interlocuturs are frequently at a loss for how to respond to her. More fixated on mortality than the rest of her community, she is also more poised in her sense of the profundity of her soul, making her sense of Puritan expectation all the more vivid as well. Indeed, in her person, Puritan expectation is taken to its logical conclusion, as she expects that every moment can bring paradise, and is delighted when it does, turning the more abstracted and conventional expectation of paradise into an impossible distant prospect, and rendering paradise itself, in the traditional sense, rather anticlimactic, if only because it is devoid, by definition, of the expectation so critical to the Puritan mindset. While she may be told by a pastor’s wife that “levity and the will of God are incompatible, even improper,” her entire outlook suggests the opposite, as the levity with which she absorbs Puritan austerity comes from an even more abiding faith than anything that her contemporaries seem capable of desiring, even if by necessity it takes a more circuitous and idiosyncratic path to express it.
That all could easily be too arch, or too ironic, if handled in a different way, but it is paired with such a serene and decorous sense of pace, and grounded in such a radiant performance from Nixon, that it all congeals into a portrait in which playfulness, joy and conviction are fused into a sparkling and scintillating whole. For that reason, this profound sociability feels like the subject matter of the film and the central principle of Dickinson’s life, despite the conventional view of her as a hermit and recluse. For the most part, speculations about her possible attraction to women have been framed in terms of this reclusive narrative, as if this attraction were simply another way for Dickinson to turn further inwards upon herself and her poetic world. Here, however, Davies subsumes any question of Dickinson’s object choice into this broader queer sociability – queer not in any open avowals of homosexuality, but in its determination to broker connections and form relationships that stand outside of the norms expected at the time. While Dickinson is quite capable of articulating the hypocrisies of marriage, gender roles and property relations at the time, her main tool of resistance is this deep sociability, which seems to have the capacity to form connections that elude those prescribed and proscribed by her community, and to envisage a different kind of sociable potentiality from the one laid out for her as well.
Yet, as the film proceeds, the people who seem to be most immersed in her sociability turn out to be a part of the system after all, or to be more aligned with and invested in the system than she initially believed. Whether it’s the pastor who first approves of her poems but remains with his orthodox wife, or her best friend who gets married for convenience and profit, or her brother who betrays her sister-in-law for an affair with a married woman, the world around her gradually departs from the sociability that she has constructed for them, with the result that even her most profound acts of generosity start to fall on silent ears. At various points in the film, she observes that people become what they most fear, but throughout the second two acts it feels more like people become what she most fears of them, and what she most fears of society, as one connection after another retreats to the remote distance of societal institutions or privileges that are by their nature inimical to the kinds of camp sociability that she has constructed. It’s here that Davies’ abiding reservations about homosexual integration, and homosexual acceptance, come to the surface, as the film evinces a very queer trajectory of gradually realising that a sociable network of fellow travellers are actually more invested in a patriarchal system than they could ever have imagined of themselves, even or especially as they continue to pretend to Dickinson that they are not, and that they are still a part of the very sociable affects that they now oppose.
Over the second and third acts of the film, that process does indeed turn Dickinson into the recluse of legend, but only because her continued efforts to maintain this sociability produce a pervasive and inescapable indignity that, once again, feels very queer, and very continuous with the kinds of subsumed queer indignity that percolate Davies’ broader body of work. No doubt, Dickinson’s indignity is brilliantly burnished, but it also exceeds even her best efforts to imbue it with dignity, resulting in one scene after another in which her efforts to muster all her intellectual brilliance are offset by the sheer fact of her subjectivity – and the sheer fact of her body – as an object of abject disdain, even or especially as her sociability has been premised on precluding precisely this disdain for the world at large. At this point in the film, the dashes of her poetry start to expand, and to exceed her capacity to contain them as playfully or irreverent as in her earlier work, as Davies translates them into the long still interior sequences, and the isolated communions with domestic space, where this subsumed rage and shame tends to collect and percolate within his own body of work.
Yet this is more than a mere pairing, since it quickly comes to feel as if Davies’ pans and Dickinson’s dashes have always said the same thing, or always evoked the things that can’t be said in the same way. In Davies’ films, these zones represent a space where friends, family and acquaintances fall away, to either death or conformity – the two are the same – and the possibility of sociability is subsumed into a more abiding isolation and depression. Watching these scenes is therefore like witnessing a communion, across history, between Davies and Dickinson’s trajectories, which is perhaps why the second half of A Quiet Passion seems to bring a new tonal complexity and sophistication to Davies’ palette, just as it did to Dickinson’s. Enormous and confined at the same time, these pan-dashes speak to the enormity of the confinement that suffuses each figure’s body of work, and the damage it can wreck upon a person, as Davies illustrates rather than adapts Dickinson’s body of work, just as her body of work seems to illustrate his body of work in a new way as well. Given that these pan-dashes represent gaps, ellipses and fissures in experience, there are moments when they open up to something beyond both Dickinson and Davies’ worlds, most beautifully in a burnished romantic tableau that feels like a fulfilment of both their fantasies, and a exquisite fusion of their very different kinds of queerness into a single romantic horizon. Yet for all its timeless beauty, this sequence is also short-lived, and a mere interlude in a domestic void that grows more bleakly despairing as the film proceeds.
In a profound gesture of revisionism, then, and a brilliant act of close reading, Davies presents Dickinson as intensely sociable – and extrapolates an intense sociability from her poems – only to set her against a world in which a certain kind of antisociability was the only way she could have guaranteed longevity or recognition within her own lifetime. Indeed, for Davies, this tension is the tension between language and silence in her poetry, which he translates into his own distinctive tension between dialogue and silence to form a meditation on queer sociability more generally, and a testament to the profound sociability of people who are typically or conventionally held to be beyond the boundaries of sociability. The same pain and rage that suffuses Davies’ other films is therefore intensified and burnished in the figure of Dickinson, and her trauma of her having to contend with increasingly horrible thoughts despite being inherently generous, and invested in an inherently generous and optimistic conception of the human community. In a traumatic shift, the film moves from the most sublime comedy to the most despairing tragedy – it is almost like two different films – culminating with the final indignity, in which Dickinson’s brother Austin sadistically expounds to her on the view of her poems set forth by her publisher, who has gathered them, in a local newspaper article, under the broader category of women’s “literature of misery,” in which the focus on the “poor, lonely and unhappy” makes it too “difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears” for “good” literature.
Over the last part of the film, all that Dickinson has to define her against this condescending reduction of her work to “misery” is her rage – the last vestige of her sociability, generosity and joy – which becomes more glittering and piercing as the film draws towards its inexorable conclusion. Unlike the reclusive model of Dickinson, Nixon’s Dickinson never has any real doubt of her talent here, however self-deprecating she might be about other parts of her life, and yet that frank awareness of her talent also makes her even more acutely aware of the impediments to her recognition, and even more devoid of the slightest illusion of how long it will take for her work to be properly appreciated, if appreciated at all (and it was a century later the first proper edition of her poetry was published). Yet even that rage starts to fall on deaf ears, and to become bathetic, meaning that all Dickinson finally has to offer is the fact of herself – of her life, of her poetry, and finally, of her body – as a testament to the joy, and the sociability, and the generosity, and belief in the human spirit that were once so crucial to her life, and so crucial to the opening register of Davies’ vision.
Perhaps that’s why the ending of the film is so traumatic, as the only testament that Dickinson can make to the joyous extension and yearning emergence of her sensibility in the opening act is the utter devolution of her body in the final act. In the last two and a half years of her life, Dickinson was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a form of acute nephritis, but the film backdates this considerably, or appears to backdate it considerably, fusing it with a gradual physical disintegration that culminates with the horrific final scene in which a sustained fit contorts Dickinson’s body, face and presence into one terrifying position after another, before she quietly passes away. All that is left to show is her funeral, which is accompanied by Nixon reading a sequence of her poems, before the film fades to black and concludes with “Because I could not stop for death.” In some ways, it’s an ugly ending, but it also liberates Dickinson from her life and absorbs her back into the sociable promise of her art, even if her art now seems entirely constituted by silence, and by her efforts to contour that silence. Whether or not her profound and Puritan sense of expectation has been satisfied, or even still exists, is unclear, just as the valency of the silence is ambiguous, alternating between mute bleakness and Vinnie’s observation that “if we reach into the silence, we cannot be afraid, for where there is silence, there is God.” In other words, the same pattern of presences and absences – but intensified – that have made Davies’ work so evocative, and the long spaces between his films as important as his films themselves, as Dickinson’s dashes and ellipses are here framed as a closet epistemology of the highest order. The result may well be Davies’ most anguished testimony to everything that remains submerged, and forced to dissemble itself, in his life, his art and his outlook on the world, as well as the greatest text, fiction or non-fiction, to be inspired by America’s greatest poet.