Review: A Quiet Passion sees Terence Davies bring passion to tale of quiet poet

A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia "Vinnie" Dick

A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as Lavinia "Vinnie" Dickinson. Picture: Soda Pictures - Credit: Soda Pictures

Liverpudlian writer-director clearly feels a deep affinity with American poet Emily Dickinson and his labour of love paints a richly detailed portrait of a misunderstood woman.

A Quiet Passion (12A)

***

With Whisperin' Terry Davies you know you will get the Quiet, but Passion is not generally his thing. This film about the life of the American poet Emily Dickinson is as still and formal as a library, but in its stiff little way it bursts with passion.

Dickinson's life is stubbornly undramatic – she never married, she was largely unpublished and completely unrecognised during her life.


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She became increasingly reclusive, meaning that the film is largely restricted to events in her house: a blessing for a small scale production that is looking after the pennies.

Davies addresses this in a most unexpected way – humour. Particularly in the first hour, it seems as though nobody can open their mouth without delivering a pithy epigram or witty putdown.

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They ping back and forth between Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), her sister (Jennifer Ehle) and her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) but in a rather aimless way.

There is lots of smiling and happiness in the film but we can see that in her devotion to her family, she is already committing herself to a withdrawal from society. She writes her poems from 3am, so as not to disturb the rest of the house, after asking her father (Keith Carradine) for permission to do so.

Davies's version of her life is a kind of formal anti-drama: stiff but with feeling. His cast all respond magnificently, especially Nixon as Dickinson.

In his most famous film Distant Voices, Still Lives Davies re-staged his working class upbringing as a hateful, patronising, frigid, sing along tableaux.

Here, after a couple of decades making costume dramas, he's revisited that style to create a convincing, heartfelt and touching vision of a person and a talent that is slowly withering away from the world.

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