By Tara Judah

“Any argument about gender is war!”

Cynthia Nixon spits out Davies’ dialogue as if it were written in the pit of her stomach. Her Emily is stoic, rebellious and sharp-tongued, with a dash of warmth and humility. She is a religious agnostic, a pro-abolitionist and even when her words severely wound others, she always strives to be truthful. Though she lived and wrote more than a century ago, she is a modern feminist.

It may rile some to see that her story is told – written and directed – by a man. While this is undoubtedly her story, the telling is entirely Davies. But he is respectful of Dickinson; honouring her words, using them as punctuation for his own visual poetry. Nixon narrates with Dickinson’s most famous works and each poem offers a diegetic pause – giving the viewer a moment to reflect upon the filmic stanza that has come before.

Whether we are getting to know the Dickinson family on a night out at the opera or simply at home in their sitting room, we do so through the soft, steady movements of the camera, especially as it cranes and pans. The spaces reveal social decorum, but are charged with personal rebellion; Davies never rushes the camera’s movement, taking just enough time to let the space, people and objects simmer with stifled anxiety.

Davies clearly admires Dickinson’s talent and principles but he is critical of her, too. The narrative plays out in such a way that we see how Dickinson used her talents as a wordsmith to cause harm. But we also see how her fragility and desire was ignored by others. Emily, mindful of her family and content in solitude, preferred the night time for her writing. One evening, as she lights her way through the darkness with a lantern, the camera follows. But it does not follow her – it stays fixed and focused on the light. Davies is showing us, through this simple movement, how difficult it was for Dickinson to be seen by others. Sometimes, even the camera does not care.

But there is one person who does see her. What follows is an exchange with her newly wedded sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May). It is, I think, the most moving scene in the film. The women talk openly about love and desire, duty and oppression. It is an exchange where two women, living in a time and place of social patriarch, each wanting something they cannot have, can finally be honest: without shame, judgement or persecution. Gilbert even sheds a tear, and, as she does, the camera’s focus pulls, for just an instant, as if it were blinking, shedding its own tear, in empathy for her hardship.

Still, in lieu of such cinematic beauty, the film is not faultless. Davies executes mini visual experiments in this film and they are awkward as often as they are successful. He introduces the character Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), with whom Dickinson had great companionship, by panning up a curtained window pane to reveal his silhouette. The curtain, billowing, white as bedsheets, tells us that she harbours carnal desire. The action, both of the camera panning up to his face, and of him delivering a sermon, also tells us that the relationship will never be equal, with the power tipped in his favour. It communicates well enough but is nevertheless an abrasive stylistic interruption.

Davies’ decision to show the passage of time through the digital manipulation of the faces of his cast – a way of aging his character –  is no less jarring, though it is bold. Not nearly as clunky as describing it may sound – they sit to have their photograph taken and, as the camera zooms in, they become someone else – it is nonetheless incongruous in an otherwise generic period drama.

Finally, when the narrative collides with Civil War, Davies uses stock footage photography to insert a short montage to show the devastation of many tens of thousands of deaths on the battlefield. It is far more effective than some of his other stylistic choices, owing to the nature of the material. It is historic. Until now, the overarching tone of the film (despite many visual clues to Dickinson’s internal turmoil) has been mostly upbeat, comedic even. Such a dramatic tonal shift requires sincerity; this Davies has in stores.

The third act of the film is a little weak and it is also where we start to feel its length – clearly not an issue of incompetence, just that the story needs its ending. The slow, painful death and embitterment of someone as remarkable as Dickinson, even on film, is an endurance. One or two not entirely convincing performances of Dickinson’s fits notwithstanding, A Quiet Passion is a fine, reverent film.

Berlinale Special Gala

Directed: Terence Davies
Produced: Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos
Written by: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Emma Bell, Keith Carradine
Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister
Edited by: Pia Di Ciaula
Production companies: Hurricane Films, Indomitable Entertainment, WeatherVane Productions
Potemkino, Gibson&MacLeod
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Year: 2016