A Quiet Passion is not only the title of the Emily Dickinson biopic that comes out on general release this weekend. It could also be a fitting epigraph for the ethos of its diligent and artful director, Terence Davies. Davies has a strong claim to the title of Britain’s greatest living filmmaker – he is indisputably Britain’s greatest living literary filmmaker – and much like another great directorial “Terry” (Mr. Malick), Davies has finally cast aside years in the wilderness and a reputation as an intransigent perfectionist to hit a strikingly prolific late patch in his career. Of course, the comparisons to Malick can only go so far. Whereas Malick is a swooning poet, Davies is a painstaking formalist and classicist, and nowhere was that sensibility better displayed than in Davies’ beautiful Edith Wharton adaptation, The House of Mirth (2000).
Most Davies devotees would likely nominate his staggering debut Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) as his best work, or perhaps even the more handsomely mounted recent adaptations of The Deep Blue Sea (2011) or Sunset Song (2015). Wedged in between those two junctures though, and right in the middle of the years where Davies seemed to be British cinema’s persona non grata (certainly from the perspective of gaining industry support for his projects), Davies made the exquisite The House of Mirth, which must surely rank as Davies’ most underrated film, and also one of the forgotten cinematic gems of the new millennium so far.
The narrative of The House of Mirth is loosely similar to that other famous Wharton cinematic adaptation: Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). Both detail the cruel rituals and repressions of an exalted New York milieu, and though Scorsese’s vision was unquestionably rich and powerful, his over-demonstration of the subtle hypocrisies of his society was anything but subtle. Davies approached the material differently, and correctly portrayed the institutional, almost invisible, “murder” his early 20th-century society inflicts on its protagonist, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), by going interior and creating a profoundly quiet film. Thus Lily’s downfall plays out almost incredulously and as an event of great pathos, because the act of “dethroning” her from the position of beautiful socialite to penniless waif occurs without the characters and Davies’ own diegesis voicing it at every stage.
If anything, the key feature of The House of Mirth’s artillery is Davies’ own attitude to mise-en-scène, cinematography and editing. Without the hefty budget that Scorsese had access to (The House of Mirth cost $10 million while The Age of Innocence cost $34 million), Davies almost created a de facto stage play or chamber piece. Davies evidently chose not to compromise on the actual costumes and décor – this, after all, was the best way to suggest the suppressive textures of his 1905 world – but most of the film was shot indoors. He refused to mask these limitations, though, and almost made an expressionistic feature of their artifice; conjuring some beautifully-lit interiors and clever aural motifs (the unnerving chiming of antique clocks) to sensualise his world. Perhaps Davies’ finest artistic triumph with The House of Mirth though is that the film is essentially a series of tableaux joined together by beautiful dissolves. In an age where editing as a rhetorical device has become increasingly functional and prosaic, to craft a film where a technique takes centre stage (dissolves which function as poignant commentaries on the dreamlike passing of time) is a radical move.
Davies has always been a canny recruiter for the roles in his films. His three-hander of Rachel Weisz, Simon Russell Beale and Tom Hiddleston in The Deep Blue Sea was one of the great recent British cinema ensembles, and his casting for The House of Mirth was equally acute. Presumably restricted from A-list stars by the budget, Davies recruited an ingenious bevy of character actors or stars who had recently passed under the radar. Gillian Anderson gave the performance of a lifetime as Lily Bart – the fallen heroine who maintains her poise amid a tragic loss of status – while Eric Stoltz, Laura Linney, Jodhi May, Anthony LaPaglia and Dan Aykroyd (he had not found a part this right since the ‘80s) topped off a stellar canvas for Davies’ Whartonian world. Rescuing Cynthia Nixon from her post-Sex and the City wilderness sounds like another act of Davies’ casting alchemy, which – along with the promise of his illustrious back-catalogue and the raw material of Emily Dickinson’s poetry – makes A Quiet Passion an enticing proposition.