Thursday, 18 May 2017

A Quiet Passion



Terence Davies (like a certain other Terrence), has a unique style of filmmaking that usually impresses critics but isn’t always popular with the average viewers. A Quiet Passion is no exception to this. I am one of Davies’ fans, while acknowledging that while I think his films are brilliant, they are not always entirely enjoyable. A Quiet Passion is also no exception to this.

A Quiet Passion tells the story of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson through a series of carefully constructed scenes that take place at various times in her life. The reclusive Dickinson didn’t move around much, so almost all of the scenes take place in and around the large family estate in Amherst, Massachusetts (the film was, however, largely filmed in Belgium). This lends itself to Davies’ style, which focuses on carefully-set family scenes and precise dialogue. While the dialogue in this case is brilliantly-written, and may be true to its 19th-century setting, it doesn’t always feel natural. The progression of scenes also makes the story feel less natural. But in spite of this (or because of it), the film feels poetic in a way that perfectly matches its subject. 

Indeed, the intelligent thought-provoking dialogue and the extraordinary performances of the two women who deliver most of the lines are what make A Quiet Passion an almost-masterpiece. Dickinson is played by Cynthia Nixon, while Jennifer Ehle plays Emily’s sister, Lavinia. Nixon, in particular, has to be perfect to make the film work at all, because the film is so focused on her words, her moods, her poems and her inner life, all of which are conveyed wonderfully by Nixon. While Dickinson was often far from happy (and sometimes quite bitter), there is a lot of humour in her words and in the film as a whole, though it is far from a comedy.

The cinematography and score are strong, adding to a very solid period-feel. 

I found A Quiet Passion utterly fascinating from beginning to end (especially the conversations about religion), but didn't feel engaged enough in Dickinson's life to fully enjoy the film (hampered somewhat by Davies’ style). So while I think the film deserves four stars, I will need to give it somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

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