A Quiet Passion

A-Quiet-Passion-rev A Quiet Passion  (2017)    Music Box/Drama    RT: 126 minutes    Rated PG-13 (thematic elements, disturbing images, brief suggestive material)    Director: Terence Davies    Screenplay: Terence Davies    Music: Ian Neil (supervisor)    Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister    Release date: May 12, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Catherine Bailey, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Rose Williams, Annette Badland, Noemie Schellens, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter.

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 As per usual, the summer movie season is off to a noisy start with The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Meanwhile, it’s pretty quiet on the arthouse movie circuit (the yell-fest The Dinner notwithstanding) especially if you’re watching A Quiet Passion, the latest from Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives), a filmmaker who’s anything but conventional. His latest work is a biopic of Emily Dickinson (1830-66), the reclusive 19th century American poet who was never recognized as a literary genius during her lifetime. It wasn’t until after she died (kidney failure, age 55) that her work started getting noticed. She lived a life of relative obscurity, something that was partly Dickinson’s own doing, but Davies never asks us to pity her. Instead, he shows her as a strong-willed, outspoken and recalcitrant woman who refused to play the role that 19th century society demanded of her gender.

 A Quiet PassionA Quiet Passion opens by showing us the extent of Dickinson’s proclivity for defiance. Played as a young girl by Emma Bell (Final Destination 5), she gets into with a strict teacher at her boarding school over her refusal to submit her life to God and be saved. She argues that since she’s not yet awakened, how can she possibly be expected to repent her sins. We soon learn that she gets her impudence from her family. Her father (Carradine, Madam Secretary) is lawyer whose leftist political views aren’t exactly in sync with others in his social class in upper crust Amherst. At the same time, he’s rigid when it comes to his views about a woman’s place in society. Naturally, Emily and her sister Vinnie (Ehle, BBC’s Pride and Prejudice) aren’t having any of that.

 By way of depicting the passage of time, Davies has the Dickinson clan sit for photographs and shows each family member morph into their older selves. Older Emily is played by Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) in a performance I hope will be remembered come Oscar time. After getting her father’s permission to write her poetry at night, she throws herself into her art, only occasionally being published (as “Anonymous”) in a local newspaper. She hasn’t any friends outside her sister and Vryling (Bailey), a fellow free thinker and kindred spirit. When Emily does try and get close to somebody- e.g. a married pastor- it isn’t appropriate. She rarely ventures outside the house; eventually, she doesn’t even leave her bedroom to receive guests. When a suitor calls on her, she’ll only speak to him from the top of the stairs out of his view. She can see him but he can’t see her. On top of that, she insults him to the point where he never returns.

 I had to think it over a bit, let it settle into my brain, before deciding that A Quiet Passion is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Stylistically, it caught me off-guard. I’m familiar with most of Davies’ work and understand his style pretty well. He’s like a less abstract Terrence Malik whose most recent work Song to Song is one of the worst of the year. Davies style is lyrical and languid- e.g. The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible. At first, I was surprised that he chose to direct A Quiet Passion. I was thinking that Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady) would be the more obvious choice for a film with feminist themes. Then I remembered that Davies also directed The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea and it made perfect sense. He tends to sympathize with oppressed women who live during times when the gender had no voice in important matters. Did you know that he has NEVER made a film set in present day? It’s interesting how he looks fondly upon past eras while, at the same time, criticizing the male-dominated status quo.

 Anyway, back to what I was starting to say about this film’s particular style. It starts off in a more formal manner with the characters speaking stiffly and standing all straight and rigid as if they’re posing. They speak each line of dialogue as though it was being recorded for posterity. As the film progresses, its style becomes a bit more relaxed and fluid. It took me a moment to get used to it but once I did, I was into it. In fact, I found myself liking a great many aspects of A Quiet Passion not the least of which is Nixon’s incredible performance as Emily Dickinson. Instead of romanticizing the notion of tortured artist, she embraces Dickinson’s abrasiveness and her tendency to castigate the people around her. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly (or at all) and makes her feelings clear. She hates the societal double standard even worse. Why is it scandalous when she shows romantic interest in a married man but not when her married brother Austin (Duff) harbors similar feelings for a married woman? It’s none-too-subtly hinted that Dickinson suffered from mental illness, likely the result of all the years of self-isolation.

The entire cast does a great job but Carradine is a real stand-out as the father, a walking study in contradiction. He’s an abolitionist yet has no problem with the figurative enslavement of women. He encourages his children to speak their minds but goes ballistic if one of them dares dispute him. He’s a religious skeptic but goes off on Emily for refusing to kneel for prayer when the pastor visits. In one scene, he tells Emily that his supper plate is dirty. She proceeds to smash it into a million pieces and tells him it isn’t dirty anymore. He seems amused by this. Carradine portrays him as neither an ogre nor a pussycat. It’s an interesting performance that could potentially net him a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy next winter.

 A Quiet Passion is gorgeous to look at. The cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister is first-rate stuff. Each shot looks like a tableau. The whole movie has a surreal quality to it, like a very vivid dream that takes place in a slightly askew reality. The production design is also great. The costumes and interiors are completely authentic to the time. Nobody composed a score for A Quiet Passion; instead, Davies makes excellent use of classical music played on a piano. The film moves at a slow, deliberate pace that will certainly irk the Fast & Furious crowd. A Quiet Passion is the very definition of high art. Personally, I found it fascinating. If you’re not into fast cars or space-hopping superheroes, you may want to check it out. 

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