Terence Davies is a director whose work is systematically outpaced by reputation. Unlike many directors who hit the ground running straight out of film school, Davies left school at the age of sixteen and spent the best part of three decades slowly working his way towards the director’s chair. Davies appeared to arrive where he wanted to be in 1988 when his first feature-length film Distant Voices, Still Lives started winning prizes. More prizes followed in the early 1990s until 1995’s The Neon Bible was poorly received by critics at that year’s Cannes film festival.
Critics love to account for cinematic success through acts of grandiose contextualisation but whenever a director runs into trouble, they are usually seen as having only themselves to blame. These kinds of analyses ring absolutely false when applied to the work of Terence Davies as Davies never for an instant lost the ability to tell beautiful, moving stories about the lives of ordinary working-class people. What changed is that the film industry lost interest in those kinds of stories.
The root of the problem is that Davies is a director in the great tradition of British art house film. Indeed, while many of the art films to come out of continental Europe tend towards the abstract and novelistic, British art films tend to be theatrical and rooted in social realism. To put it another way, European art film is a house built by Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard whereas British art house film owes considerably more to left-leaning social realists such as Alan Clark and Mike Leigh. Unfortunately for Davies and many directors like him, the 1990s saw the economic heartlands of prestige cinema shift a lot closer to the American middle-class and while the abstract tendencies of European art film survived the transition, the British art house tradition did not. Davies laid out his stall as someone who could vocalise the experiences of the British working-class with singular power and poetry only to spend the rest of his career struggling to get projects off the ground.
The fact that Davies has struggled to fund all of his more recent films means that critics often fall into the trap of ‘wishing him well’ and making apologies for him when a project doesn’t quite work out. While it is difficult to fault the intentions at work behind this style of coverage, it is important to recognise that something has gone seriously wrong when a film like A Quiet Passion can receive glowing reviews from film-critics only for film-goers to loathe it almost on sight. In truth, A Quiet Passion is a film perfectly in synch with its subject matter the American poet Emily Dickinson: Beautiful, poignant, and extraordinarily complex but also very difficult to like.
The film opens with a scene that establishes a theme that resonates throughout the entire film: A serious-looking woman is shot head-on speaking to a group of younger but identically-clothed women who are also shot head-on. The lighting is subdued to the point of being sombre and the older woman speaks about the importance of God before asking the women who have been saved to step to the right while the women who hope to be saved should step to the left. The camera does not move and we are left with an image of a single woman. When questioned about her devotion to both God and the group, the young woman expresses profound ambivalence.
The ambivalence expressed by the young Emily Dickinson is reflective of the fact that while she was encouraged to make a choice, her range of options were actually limited to the point where there was no meaningful difference between the paths that were being offered. Faced with a choice between two meaningless options, Dickinson chose to withdraw.
The young Dickinson is played in by Emma Bell and Bell’s Dickinson takes so much pleasure from life that she positively glows. The film’s early scenes are incredibly up-beat as they are effectively a series of hilarious set-pieces in which Emily Dickinson banters off a succession of stodgy authority figures including her aunt and the head-mistress of her school. This up-beat and sarcastic mode of being follows Dickinson into adulthood when she is played by Cynthia Nixon. Some critics have criticised the film’s affected and superficial style but while the dialogue is undeniably stilted to the point of ludicrous affectation, this affectation appears to be deliberate as suggested by a wonderful scene in which a young Dickinson is called downstairs by her aunt.
Davies’ camera follows Dickinson down the stars and catches her as she delivers one last sotto-voce put down before clearing her throat, smoothing her dress, and stepping into the sitting room where the aunt pretends to be just as surprised to see the niece as the niece is surprised to see the aunt. Why are they surprised given that the aunt had just finished yelling for Dickinson to come down and speak to her? Well… that would be a social conceit.
The artificiality of 19th Century middle-class lives is also explored in a plotline involving a friend of the family whose verbal dexterity and caustic wit make her come across as both a powerful intellectual and a free spirit. However, as the film progresses, it soon becomes apparent that the woman’s skilled banter and cynicism is severely constrained by the need for her to acquire a husband. In other words, this friend of the family may appear free in both mood and thought but the freedom is really just an illusion, a performance conducted for the sake of facilitating a later act of social conformity. In 19th Century America, middle-class women could be accomplished and free-spirited but at the end of the day, they were expected to do their duty and obey both their husbands and their fathers.
The fact that West Wing-style banter and cleverness offer no escape from social convention and material reality causes a rift between Emily and the rest of her family. At first, the entire Dickinson family happily trade jokes and bon-mots but Nixon plays Dickinson as someone who yearns for more while others seem content with what they have. The light and up-beat tone of the film’s opening scenes dissipates after about an hour as Dickinson’s fate is prefigured by that of her mother; a much-loved but seldom-seen woman who is perpetually sick and isolated. Right from the start, Dickinson’s relatives are forever apologising for her mother’s reluctance to leave the house and soon those same apologies start to cohere around Emily as her alienation from the false and affected freedoms of 19th Century American life begin to steadily grow.
A Quiet Passion reads a lot like a critique of contemporary liberalism: It begins as a light and fluffy comedy of manners in which brilliant young women drop truth bombs of stuffy 19th Century caricatures but the comedy of manners collapses into tragedy when it turns out that material reality is immune to your zesty one-liners and epic owns. What follows is an absolutely uncompromising vision of genius and depression rooted in the realities of 19th Century life. Indeed, while many of Dickinson’s friends and family affect a form of world-weary cynicism, Dickinson expands those insights beyond the punchline and towards their logical conclusion in the realisation that society is built upon a series of monstrously unjust lies.
As time passes and Dickinson grows progressively more sick, her temper shortens and with it her tolerance of social conceit. This loss of inhibition leads first to anger as she lashes out at friends and family, and then to despair as the poet withdraws from all forms of public life and refuses to be seen by anyone except her closest family. It is in these moments that we see the true brilliance of Terence Davies as while many directors would be tempted to romanticise Dickinson’s genius and flinch from her less flattering moments, Davies shows us not only the unbreakable bond between Dickinson’s genius and her inability to be happy, but also the extent to which Dickinson herself wished she could have been someone else.
A Quiet Passion may open like a biopic written by Aaron Sorkin but the up-beat frothiness soon dissolves into an absolutely harrowing depiction of illness and depression. The young woman who brutally bantered off her head-mistress is the same woman who writhed in agony as she died, the same woman who hated herself for her inability to be happy, and the same woman who produced great poetry. Life is hard and it breaks all those who refuse to fit in.
A Quiet Passion is not an easy film to watch. Aside from the uncompromising way in which it engages with its subject matter, it also relies upon readings of Dickinson’s poetry to articulate many of the truths it seeks to expound. Let us not speak of Terence Davies as the director who spent the 2000s struggling to get films made and let us not speak of him as a director whose career was hampered by changes in the material realities of the film industry. Let us not look back to what he was… Let us instead celebrate Terence Davies as the man who understood Emily Dickinson.