email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on reddit pin on Pinterest

BERLIN 2016 Berlinale Special

A Quiet Passion: Ecstasy in a corset


- BERLIN 2016: Maestro Terence Davies has delivered a dialogue-rich and flamboyant look at the life of US poet Emily Dickinson, which paints a reserved portrait of a complex character

A Quiet Passion: Ecstasy in a corset
Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion

The story seemed like a perfect one for British maestro Terence Davies to take on. A period tale based on pent-up passion, rebellion against society, the ecstasy of pain… Every single inch of the territory regularly trodden by the irrefutable filmmaker was present and correct in this potential portrait of poet Emily Dickinson. This key figure in North American literature was the one behind Davies' decision to throw himself into the nearest thing to a biopic that he could possibly make. A Quiet Passion [+see also:
film profile
, co-produced by the United Kingdom (Hurricane Films) and Belgium (Potemkino), and presented in the Berlinale Special section of the 66th Berlin Film Festival, is the new oeuvre by a director dedicated to creating new worlds set in the past, which last forever thanks to their fiery emotion and their exceedingly elegant and spectacular beauty.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

It could be said that these worlds are set forth in a different way in A Quiet Passion. A young Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell) confronts the governess of the Mount Holyoke women’s seminary, with all the aplomb she can muster, to state categorically that she does not wish to be either saved by divine providence or forgotten by it. The adult Dickinson (a very devoted Cynthia Nixon) continues to live with this stubborn contradiction in her daily life – a life defined by her family’s mansion, the severity of her father (Keith Carradine), the reserved presence of her mother (Joanna Bacon), the unwavering support of her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and the manliness of her brother Austin (Duncan Duff). This is a life that she is reluctant to change, one that serves as sustenance for her very existence, and one in which poetry constitutes a refuge from her worries and disenchantment. A refuge that she also seems to find in the witty but inappropriate remarks of Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and the sermons of Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren) – but they will not be there with her forever.

Dickinson’s tribulations are transposed to images mainly through dialogue. The film is built up of static scenes consisting of conversations, without any of those trademark sudden (and breathtaking) sequences that transformed movement into pure expression. Wrapped up in the expressions and recitations of each of the characters, the English director seems to want to confine the underlying passion of a story that would have lent itself to a great deal more than its being delivered through verbal communication. Nevertheless, when Davies allows himself to let his point of view run wild, the images become captivating, whether he is depicting the room of Dickinson's confinement, the longed-for arrival of a man in the middle of the night or a luxuriant bouquet of immaculate flowers that could well have a deeper meaning.

Davies runs with Dickinson’s story until its conclusion, and as a result, we are forced to endure a standardised representation of the condition that caused her death, Bright’s disease, following her total seclusion in her room and her rejection of any visitor from outside the family. What at the beginning of the feature started as words that, despite always having a serious tone, were scathing and playful enough to send us into fits of laughter, towards the end becomes a stoic kind of martyrdom. The passing of time is also one of the director's concerns, which he tackles with a well-executed transformation of the actors into a photographic portrait, but also with a clumsy insertion of pictures from the American Civil War, which in the end is as bewildering as it is impertinent to the story.

Be that as it may, Davies devotes himself wholeheartedly to a film that may end up being in equal parts unsatisfying and invigorating, demanding and unmoving, seductive and impenetrable – possibly just like the figure of Emily Dickinson herself.

(Translated from Spanish)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.