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 She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst.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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Of Time and the City


Of Time and the City

A bleak vista in postwar Liverpool.

(Strand) Terence Davies, the Beatles, Assorted local figures in Liverpool. Directed by Terence Davies

We are all products of our environment. We feel a sense of keen belonging to a place and time; it is there we feel comforted and where we feel we understand our surroundings at least to the degree that hindsight gives us.

Unfortunately, no place is static; every city changes. Old buildings crumble and new ones take their place, glittering in the architecture du jour of the era. We find ourselves lost in our own homes, unable to make sense at what had once seemed sensible.

Veteran director, writer and actor Terence Davies spent a quarter of a century in the British working class city of Liverpool, starting just after the Second World War. His was a world of compression; row after row of houses sharing common walls, made of brick, smoke curling from chimneys to join that which belched out of the factories and the shipyards.

Like most in Liverpool, Davies grew up in a working class family, the youngest of ten children (two of which died in infancy) in a deeply religious Roman Catholic household. He found the strictures of the Church too confining and eventually rejected Catholicism, becoming an atheist instead.

His budding homosexuality caused him great suffering, trying to reconcile his feelings with societal mores and eventually deciding that the problem was with society and not him, quite sensibly in fact. He considers himself a realist; he prefers to see things as they are rather than what they could be.

This is what puzzles me about the documentary he has made about his home town. He simultaneously labels it a love letter and a eulogy and indeed, it’s both, but it seems fairly certain that Davies prefers the Liverpool of his youth to the modern one. Using archival footage (some of it seems to be home movies; whether they were shot by Davies or other Liverpudlians is not clear), Davies weaves a sense of time and place that has a certain amount of allure.

Davies narrates the movie himself, often quoting from such sources as T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Shelley and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. This is set to the background of funereal classical music and the occasional pop song (from such disparate sources as the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Hollies).

Most Americans are probably aware of Liverpool, if they are aware at all, for being the birthplace of the Beatles, but Davies gives them little thought, other than to dismissively sniff “they inspired me to love classical music.” Indeed, he has an acerbic tongue but most of his vitriol is saved for the monarchy, which he considers an outdated custom; he was especially incensed at the expenses spent on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at a time when England, still reeling from the damage from the Blitz, was stricken by intense poverty and hunger. He certainly has a point.

My problem with the movie boils down to this; if you are going to take us on a journey to see your home town as you see it, you need to give us a reason for us to go along, otherwise you’re just telling us that things change, something all of us are well aware of. I got the feeling that Davies is truly fond of Liverpool and despairs that the changes made to it are not for the better; that’s all well and good, but if I can’t love Liverpool – if you can’t adequately transfer your own love to me, then those changes aren’t going to feel as immediate to me. In other words, he might have stimulated the mind but not the heart.

In a sense, without involving the viewer in your emotional point of view, you’re making what amounts to cinematic masturbation. While I was able to at least find some of it – enough to make it worth my while – intriguing, for the most part this is ponderous and pretentious, a collection of images that while compelling, ultimately become meaningless without an emotional center to anchor to.

WHY RENT THIS: This is certainly a love letter to Liverpool.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit pretentious and overbearing at times, the film doesn’t give viewers a reason to love Liverpool themselves.

FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that isn’t suitable for all audiences, although I would think most children might find this boring.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film Davies has directed since 2000’s The House of Mirth and it is also his first documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Stepfather