You might describe it as a counter-séance. A Quiet Passion, the eighth feature-length film by Terence Davies, doesn’t pretend to recall the skeptical spirit of Emily Dickinson to the land of the living but rather projects you into her departed world, which folds itself almost tangibly around this poet of worldly departures. Everything is odd here: the geometric decorum of family gatherings in the parlor, the formal mode of address mixed with epigrammatic banter, the blanketing hush at evening, the endless play of candlelight and shadow, and most of all the behavior of Dickinson herself. She may put you in mind of a wraith, with her elongated frame and painful trembling, but there’s nothing delicate about her: not her refusal to sit in church or kneel in prayer at home, not her crockery-breaking fits of temper, and certainly not her way of thanking the editor of the Springfield Republican for having published her work. When he presents himself at her home, she insists on remaining at the top of the stairs, so she can berate him from on high for having altered her punctuation.
You cringe at the affront to a man who seems well-meaning enough, if dim; you ache for the fresh wound that Dickinson has now inflicted on her already enfeebled hopes for literary recognition; but you also understand that this bitter complaint over a few dashes and commas is one more instance of the “rigor” that her devoted sister Vinnie admires in her. Dickinson rejected convention in a spirit not of rampaging freedom but of exactness, the better to leave the reader a trail of meticulously selected pebbles and bleached bones that would lead, by a short but deliberately irregular sequence, to revelation. Davies, too, has been exacting throughout his career, refusing himself the easy norms of exposition and transition; but in his best films (such as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), he’s practiced a paradoxically liquid rigor in which each epiphany flows lusciously into the next. In his deep love of Dickinson, Davies has now adapted his smooth and coloristic style into something closer to her jagged tactility, so he can touch on the truth of what he calls A Quiet Passion—a title that at first sounds like it belongs on the cover of a less-than-marketable paperback bodice-ripper, but that actually makes a Christ out of Dickinson, who by her suffering and death redeemed all who read.
Of course, there is no plot here. People who let themselves lapse into cliché may speak of an individual’s life as a story (or, even worse, a journey), but as Psalm 90 reminds us, there’s no more narrative to it than you’d find in a blade of grass. Allow me to recommend, just in passing, the setting of Psalm 90 by Charles Ives, another uncompromising New England artist, whose music Davies has chosen for the end of A Quiet Passion. At the movie’s climax, Dickinson is lowered into the grave, having been accompanied to it by a geometric cortege, Ives’s chilliest orchestral strains, and a soundtrack recitation: “Because I could not stop for Death….” Throughout the rest of the film, while you await this foregone conclusion, you get to see the deaths or distancings of the people Dickinson loves. There’s your “story.” Nothing else happens of any consequence, except for a few brief shots of the poet scratching at papers in the dead of night and stitching the sheets into tiny booklets by day—but that’s everything.