A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall

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Miss Potter


Miss Potter

Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter inspect a proof of her first book.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber. Directed by Chris Noonan

Most of us are aware of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail – they are indelible parts of our childhood. Some of us might even be aware of Beatrix Potter, the 19th century author and creator of those wonderful characters. Most of us, however, know nearly nothing of her, which considering she is the best-selling children’s author of all time – she has sold more books than both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling – is a bit of a shame.

Zellweger means to change that. A fan of the famed author, the biopic of Beatrix Potter was something of a labor of love for the star. She plays Potter as an un-lovely but imaginative spinster, living in the home of her wealthy parents who despair of ever marrying her off as she rejects suitor after suitor, most of them brought before her because of their titles or bloodline. Beatrix, however, will have none of that. She’ll marry for love or not at all.

She also is a talented artist, a skill encouraged by her father (Paterson) who was something of an artist himself before his family forced him to take up a more respectable vocation – the law, which ironically he rarely practiced. She also has a talent at making up stories, one which kept her and her brother entertained as children. Now, she means to entertain other children with her tales, but she goes from publishing house to publishing house only to meet rejection and scorn. She finally finds one, Warne House, which is willing to publish her but only believes she’ll make a marginal profit. They fob her off on Norman (McGregor), youngest son of the family and thought to be something of a foul-up.

Norman, however, proves to be almost as enthusiastic about the project as Miss Potter herself, and the two engage in a marvelous simpatico that results in some of the classic children’s books of all times. Norman introduces Beatrix to his sister Millie (Watson) and the two become fast friends, a friendship that deepens as Beatrix falls in love with her editor. The two propose to marry, but Beatrix’s parents are aghast. Firstly, Norman is a tradesman – why, the very thing is beneath them. Secondly, by Victorian standards, they’ve barely met. The overbearing mother (Flynn) and the somewhat more sympathetic father finally arrange a truce with their distraught daughter – if she still feels the same way at the end of the summer, then the marriage will receive their blessing. Reluctantly, Beatrix agrees, expecting to hear wedding bells at the conclusion of her time at their house in the English Lake Country. Tragically, it is not wedding bells but a funeral dirge that she will hear as Norman sickens and dies in her absence.

Devastated, she moves to a home in her beloved Lake Country in a charming farm house (which still exists today, by the way). There, she finds solace in a new vocation – as an activist in preserving the Lake Country from over-development, and in the arms of a realtor (Owen) that she first met when he was a young man.

Fantasy segments bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life, and while unfortunately Zellweger’s performance is a bit bland (but to be fare, Miss Potter in reality was a bit bland), nonetheless you feel as if you’ve gotten some insight into the woman at the film’s conclusion, a very satisfactory outcome for any biopic. I enjoyed McGregor’s performance and the English supporting cast is first-rate, although not well-known.

I love the recreation of the period, which feels authentic and allows a glimpse at the daily lives of the well-to-do, not to mention the psyche of the nouveau riche of the time. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales of Beatrix Potter; watching her creations come to life in her head was revisiting beloved old friends for me. This is truly a charming movie that isn’t overwhelming, but a solid effort nonetheless.

REASONS TO RENT: Charming fantasy sequences. Solid performances by McGregor and support cast. Nice recreation of the period.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Zellweger a bit bland. Story drags a bit in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mildly naughty words but really nothing your kids haven’t already heard.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Hilltop” house that Beatrix Potter retreats to in the Lake District is actually Yew Tree Farm in the town of Coniston in the Lake District, not far from where Potter actually lived.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature on the real Beatrix Potter and the marketing of her books which was one of the first books to market the characters to children and made Potter one of the wealthiest authors of her time.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on an unreported production budget; I’d hazard a guess that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Two Lovers