A Quiet Passion
Review by Josh Cabrita
Andre Bazin argued that photography fulfills the same desire that led the ancient Egyptians to embalm their pharaohs. That word, ‘embalm,’ and the role photography can play in preserving the dead, is particularly relevant in A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ biopic on the nineteenth-century American poet, Emily Dickinson. Photography, a recent invention of the time, appears at three critical moments of change and intersects between personal and cultural history, nineteenth-century values and how modern viewers may perceive Dickinson. Davies sees the poet as a proto-feminist living under stiff patriarchy and a quasi-existentialist at a time when puritanism reigned supreme, but needless to say, another time would picture her another way.
The first time a camera appears, it bridges Dickinson’s teenage years and the rest of her life as a heterodoxical spinster. Young Dickinson is seated for a portrait while the lens gradually approaches her face. The exposure lasts for decades, chronicling years of hardships through the taxing changes on her visage — the features of Emma Bell as young Dickinson, and Cynthia Nixon, playing the same character as an adult, are slowly superimposed over each other.
The second leap, indicated once again by the foregrounding of photography, breezes by with a gust of archival images from the Civil War. Rather than reflecting on its personal effects like during the portrait sequence, the connections between the film’s scenarios and incidents have been omitted: friends come and go, passions blaze and extinguish, Dickinson’s parents live and die.
Decay and the means by which we understand the past are Davies’ primary concerns. Similar to his other films (The Long Day Closes is highly recommended for an 80-minute introduction to Davies), A Quiet Passion embalms a lost era, signals its demise, and shows history and representations to be in constant flux. This is true of the third and final example: just like how young Dickinson and adult Dickinson melded together at the beginning, Cynthia Nixon fades into a daguerreotype of the historical Dickinson.