Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion has an impossible heroine — the poet Emily Dickinson. With his signature concentration, gravity, and beauty, Davies tells her story of spinsterhood and genius in Amherst, Mass., where she lived around the time of the Civil War. The film is not simply a biopic; it’s also an emotional autobiography, as are all Davies’s films, from last year’s Sunset Song on to The Deep Blue Sea, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, The Neon Bible, his family chronicles Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and his debut Trilogy, which depicted his struggle with Catholicism and sexuality.
As those titles indicate, Davies is a cinematic poet who rigorously challenges conventional storytelling with fixed compositions, bold camera moves, and sound design that mixes music and narration with stark, complex imagery: A transition scene of an open window, with curtains blowing, overlaps with the silhouette of a preacher whose sermon deeply moves Dickinson. In this, Dickinson’s longing is palpable, but the scene also expresses an agnosticism so candid and stubborn that it even includes metaphysical awe.
Though far different from this week’s action franchise The Fate of the Furious, A Quiet Passion could also have borne that movie’s title. Dickinson’s isolated intelligence and artistry are subjects unique to Davies’s filmmaking. A kind of creative fury — apparent in Davies’s radical formalism (and made vivid by actress Cynthia Nixon) — is what drives this movie.
Determined to show how Dickinson’s art was born out of both suffering and inspiration, Davies makes her an exasperating presence at school, at home with her family, and even for her admirers. The opening sequence of her resistance to the era’s Evangelism makes her a “no-hoper.” From this funny but pointed scene, Davies launches a bravura transition, borrowed from Michael Jackson’s revolutionary 1991 music video Black or White, in which Dickinson family portraits morph each character into adulthood.
Americans never make movies that target media-class zombies like Julia, yet, as these Bulgarians close in on the truth about the hideous profession of bosses and lackeys (both seen as technological egotists), the film becomes grim and tedious. Julia misplaces Tzanko’s family heirloom (an engraved Glory-brand watch), and a hotshot pundit, Kiril Kolev (Milko Lazarov), compounds her indifference with his own, in order to bring down the corrupt Ministry.
I’m predisposed to like this exposé, especially given the American media class’s unfeeling arrogance and lack of self-awareness and scruple. But Julia and Kiril’s insensitivity is too familiar. To see her protecting her progeny is nearly unbearable (several skits show her and her sheepish husband freezing their embryos to guarantee their purchase on the future). It’s too soon after the misanthropic self-loathing of the perverse German film Toni Erdmann to enjoy this kind of filmmaking, or to find a lesson in its cynicism. Glory turns moviegoers into no-hopers.