CYNTHIA NIXON IN A QUIET PASSIONA poet's life of drear
Emily Dickinson's "pithy haiku's," as a review
of this new film calls her poems, are not meant to be read quickly in voiceovers as one is distracted by images, but to be pondered and repeated, to look at phrases from them and turn them around. Terrence Davies' repeated use of the voiceovers shows an unawareness of their complexity. Nor is this film the way to get at her or her life. It is a stilted, stifling film, and after seeing Cynthia Nixon's remarkable performance as the dying mother in James Wright
, one can't help suspecting she was half chosen here for her skill at suffering and dying. (The film seems to assume she suffered from painful kidney ailments, though that's now doubted as a cause of death; it's just what was on her birth certificate.) Nixon hasn't quite got the apartness and wisdom of the gnomic, extraordinary writer who was after her death discovered to be perhaps America's greatest nineteenth-century poet, along with Walt Whitman (they make such wonderful compliments, he loose and expansive, she reclusive and tight-lipped).
The trouble is, Emily Dickinson's life was lived in her letters, her stifled romances, and her dawn writing sessions. Anything else, and this movie gives us a lot else, is a distraction from the Emily Dickinson who really matters. Despite its poshness (the Dickinsons were well-off, important people in Western Massachusetts, Amherst and beyond), Emily had a shitty life on the outside. The real life was on the inside. The movie gives us so much more of the outside than the inside, Davies might have left off the inside altogether and just said, at the end, "Oh and by the way, she was also a great poet."
Davies takes pains (this is all nothing if not painstaking) to tell us about those dawn poetry writing sessions formally approved by her father, and one of the best scenes is when her new sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), her brother Austin's wife, comes upon her before dawn wrapped in a big shawl writing poetry, and they have a "quietly passionate" chat. They're going to be next door neighbors now, and weep with emotion over it. Emily calls herself "a no-hoper." She says all she has is "routine." But they smile and laugh thinking of how they'll share the Brontes, George Eliot,and "even Mrs. Gaskell." Here we glimpse the deprivations and also the consolations of Emily's life. The best scenes are the ones that do that, mixing glee and irony. Too much of the time Davies merely wallows in gloom, as the Reverend Wadsworth's chilly wife thinks the Bronte sisters do. What a great discovery antidepressants are! They'd have made nineteenth-century New England so different.
There are moments, but the complexity of Emily's life is hard to grasp in Davies' routine scenes of the family life - rolled out in succession like theatrical vignettes: her "rescue" by the family from the future Mount Holyoke College after only one year; her lively woman friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who shares girls-against-the-world stands, then takes a conventional husband; the cataclysm of the Civil War, which Emily's father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) would not let her brother Austin (the odd-looking Duncan Duff) go off to fight i; her growing reclusiveness and unwillingness even to face people. These are just outward trappings of the inner life that was central and continually rich, as we know from the poems. We haven't seen any movies about the life of Jane Austin. There's a reason. If there were any, one would hope they'd be made in Hampshire, where she lived. A quiet Passion
was mostly filmed in Belgium and a lot of the cast is British.
Davies has had a recent spurt of creativity, four films in eight years, with nothing in the previous eight. It's been uneven. Of Time and the City
was a rambling but touching memoir of his birthplace, Liverpool. The Deep Blue Sea
was a lovely sad swoon. Sunset Song
was an epic bore. It made no sense and even the dialect was incomprehensible. Now comes this curious, misguided effort, a relentlessly unfun movie in which Davies is out of his element and takes Emily Dickinson out of hers. She was succinct; he goes on for over two hours rubbing in the drear, devoting the last half hour to the final illness
that was only two and a half of her 55 years, seven months in bed. As noted, Cynthia Nixon is an actress expert at dying. But see her in James Wright
: she dies more quickly, and it's a better movie: instead of besmirching the reputation of a great poet, it gives hope for the redemption of a dissolute young man. A Qiuiet Passion
, 125 mins., debuted at the Berlinale FEb. 2016; 19 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, and London. UK theatrical release 7 Apr. 2017, US, 14 Apr. 2017.