Sunday, May 28, 2023


February 15, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion was screened at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday without subtitles. It could not have been otherwise. For the film evinces the love of the English language — certainly as it was cultivated by sophisticated writers and speakers the Victorian era — as much as it stunningly reveals the interior life — literally and figuratively — of its subject, the 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson, arguably the most quoted American poet of her era. Excerpts from Dickinson’s poems puncuate the narrative. They could not have been acceptably translated into other languages without losing their almost metaphysical imagery. (Indeed, there is a scene in the film in which Dickinson berates a publisher for altering the punctuation of one of her poems.) The drama could have been presented as a stage play with little alteration. Almost the entire plot unfolds within the Amherst, Massachusetts home of the Dickinson family. The usual demand upon a director to break through the walls of the scenery and expand the scope could not have been properly undertaken here; after all, the one adjective that is used most often to describe and indeed define Dickinson is “reclusive.” Cynthia Nixon, who plays Dickinson. therefore, faced the extraordinary challenge of infusing every scene with such emotional weight that the audience hardly notices that the camera rarely strays away from her. Critics generally agreed that she pulled it off. “Nixon does a brilliant job,” Andrew Pulver summed up in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. And indeed, the Berlinale audience, with varied levels of English comprehension, seemed mesmerized by Nixon’s performance and erupted in cheers at the end of the film and, moments later, when she was introduced on stage. She appeared to have effectively cracked the language barrier.