Thursday, May 11, 2017

“A Quiet Passion” reveals a resounding voice

When Emily Dickinson died, only a few of her poems had been published by a family friend, who had voiced his opinion that women’s writing was inferior to men’s, emitted “through a mist of tears.” When after her death, Emily’s family discovered 40 volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, several volumes of her poetry were published.  Today, of course, she is revered as one of America’s most significant and unique poets.

The film - “A Quiet Passion” (2016) - explores Dickinson’s cloistered family life, giving a glimpse at her strong views on social justice, women’s rights, religion, and family.  Directed by Terence Davies (“House of Mirth,” “The Deep Blue Sea”), this film reveals a strange and driven writer, seeking permission from her father to write, then arising at 3 AM to perfect her craft and tuck most of her work safely away in private books. She is brilliant, independent and occasionally funny, but she also harbors sadness, irony, and a sense of deep alienation.

This rebel is only quiet in the sense that she has limited her life to her family home, rarely venturing out. Her life is parallel to her reclusive, depressed mother’s life, who rarely leaves her bedroom.  But, as said, Dickinson is passionate and now and then loudly expressive about religion (not an atheist, but questioning), slavery, adultery (leading to a loud, angry disagreement with her brother), and truth.

This film has the sensibility of a stage production.  Words are uttered with care, sometimes just murmured. There is no talking over of one person by another. Background distractions are minimal.  Mostly we are inside the Dickinson home, though there are a few forays through lush flower gardens and other outdoor settings.  There is even a moment in a musical theater at the beginning of the film that in retrospect is in sharp contrast with how physically confined Emily’s world becomes.

Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister has created a dream-like mid-19th century New England setting, shot in both Belgium and the Amherst area.  When indoors,  a painterly-like setting is evoked with muted cool colors, light entering through windows or by gas lamps so that the foreground focus on Emily and her family or friends fades gently into darkness.  At times, the camera pans the room, silhouetting family members and displaying opulence and beauty while highlighting the estrangement of Emily as she listens to the goings-on from beyond, hidden in the shadows.

Outdoor shots portray bright sunlit gardens, extravagant gowns, and pastel parasols.  On the other hand, the formality of manners and with rare exceptions subdued expressions of emotion emphasize the contrast between the possibility of truly free and honest behavior and rigid standards of behavior.  Only through her secret writings could Emily express her passionate feelings and questions about life.
Emma Bell as young Emily and Cynthia Nixon as the adult both intuitively portray her brilliance and depth.  With an uncanny resemblance to photos of Emily Dickinson, Nixon also subtly captures nuances of her personality, intelligence, and passion that is tamped down most of the time by social conventions.

Kudos to Terence Davies (who had Nixon in mind as he wrote the script) and the casting department since also superbly well cast are Jennifer Ehle as her loyal sister, Duncan Duff as her complex brother, and Keith Carradine as Emily’s stern but supportive father.

This film opens tomorrow, May 12, in Santa Fe at the Violet Crown Cinema and in Albuquerque on Friday, May 19 at Regal UA High Ridge 8.  Here is a link to the trailer:

“A Quiet Passion” has been highly acclaimed, chosen as the Modern Masters Selection at the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival and the Official Selection at three recent film festivals, including the 2016 New York Film Festival, the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, and the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the joys of “A Quiet Passion” is that Emily Dickinson’s poetry washes over us, her words meaningfully interspersed throughout the film. Because “A Quiet Passion” celebrates Dickinson’s life and words, it seems only fitting to conclude this review with a a few of her words.  This is her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death.”

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring – 
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – 
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Photo credit: used with permission - Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion. © A Quiet Passion/Hurricane Films/Courtesy of Music Box Films.

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