A biopic of Emily Dickinson sounds like a terrible idea, and it probably would be if it unfolded along conventional lines. But what if it were as unconventional as Dickinson’s poetry? I don’t mean a movie that is la-di-dah “poetic,” with out-of-focus shots of blossoms falling as classical music plays. What if the cinematic approach to the poet’s life could approximate her eccentric punctuation—full of dashes where commas usually roam—her abrupt shifts in focus, and her piercing gaze at eternity? If you could do that you’d have A Quiet Passion, an appropriately odd film from the British director Terence Davies.
When we first see James White (played by Christopher Abbott), he’s zoned out in a Manhattan nightclub, listening to the beats of the club’s sound system but also tuning into the dreamier music coming through his headphones. He gobbles some booze while other substances presumably course through his bloodstream. The close-up view of this indie film’s title character is a useful intro. James will be our point of view for the remaining 85 minutes; for better or worse — and it gets worse — the world we see is his.
This early scene in James White isn’t over. Groggy, James stumbles out of the club into morning, and takes a cab to what turns out to be his father’s funeral gathering. Nobody seems too surprised by his disheveled appearance — they already know this guy.