In 2015 Terence Davies released Sunset Song, his expansive adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of Scottish hill-farm life; now, early in 2016, another film has emerged: a biopic of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886 after a lifetime of respectable frustration. On the face of it, the two couldn’t be more different: the former revels in its sweeping landscapes and full-blooded screaming matches, while the latter is a resolutely-controlled miniature, barely setting foot outside the Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts.
For all that, A Quiet Passion sees Davies returning again to some familiar themes. His Dickinson – superbly played with a sort of restless passivity by Cynthia Nixon – is, like Sunset Song’s Chris Guthrie, a figure trapped by history and circumstance, desperate to find an outlet for the overwhelming emotions surging inside her. The internal politics of the family plays a dominant path in both – though in A Quiet Passion, the Dickinson paterfamilias Edward (Keith Carradine) is a figure of stern rectitude, for sure, but a long way from the demonic, violent father-figures in which Davies has previously specialised. Dickinson, in her emotional isolation and determination to confound suffocating social norms, also shares something with the Lily Bart of Davies’ 2000 masterpiece The House of Mirth.
Dickinson’s circumscribed life, with its interiorised focus, is certainly a challenge for film adaptation, and Davies’ solution – perhaps inevitably – is to cast it as a chamber drama, almost literally. A Quiet Passion rarely ventures outside Dickinson’s study, bedroom or living room, and makes the most of even the most minor of incidents. When Dickinson conceives a characteristically understated passion for a local clergyman – so understated, it’s only after an argument with her sister that you realise she was ever in love with him at all – the act of inviting him and his sanctimonious wife round for tea becomes a highly charged, meaningful encounter.