Emily Dickinson at Mt. Holyoke College, 1846
A QUIET PASSION B
Great Britain Belgium (125 mi) 2017 ‘Scope d: Terence Davies Official site [Japan]
Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.
—Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon)
No one can deny this director’s reverence for American poet Emily Dickinson, as he’s spoken out in praise of her for at least a decade or more, calling her America’s greatest poet, describing her as a “genius,” though the same could probably be said for her contemporary Walt Whitman, so there’s no surprise that the film elevates the material into sacred realms, where it comes across as an extended dedication and eulogy of her life. Solemn to the core, the film is a vivid memorialization of her life, showing in the opening scene how women were bullied and manipulated, forced to endure their place in life while constantly criticized for not being happy about it. Dickinson is that rare individual who takes her soul seriously, “My soul is my own,” she insists, yet refuses to be pushed one way or another, by pastors, college matrons, or even her father, who seem to think they know what’s best for her. Throughout her life, she questions whether they do, taking individual stock in herself, valuing her own intelligence and opinion, even if it stands contrary to the prevailing view. What perhaps stands out in this film version is just how artificially self-conscious and unlike real life it seems, as it has a theatrical dimension throughout that may feel overly scripted, yet it’s simply attempting to recreate a more formal 19th century American English when people spoke differently, as they were still trying to emulate the British, where conversations sound like recitations, with the use of perfect diction and proper pitch in every scrutinized line. While this doesn’t appear to be an accident, but instead a chosen aesthetic, reminiscent of Sally Potter’s film YES (2004) that was written in iambic pentameter. While it’s not that artistically stylized, resorting to the language of Shakespeare, it does suggest an uncompromising aspect to her nature, where Emily defiantly chooses her own path, even if that means disagreements with people of authority. In the opening scene, a younger Emily (Emma Bell) receives a stern dressing down from one of the overly pious headmistresses at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she is labelled a “no-hoper,” as she refuses to whole-heartedly embrace divine Providence and instead chooses an alternative path, knowing full well that women could not aspire to happiness, but were instead forced to submit to the laws of men, believing it’s far more important to lead a good life under the watchful eyes of God. This evangelical drive for religious conformity, which amounts to little more than female servitude, causes her great distress, eventually driving her out of school, returning to a life at home where she is completely embraced by her family, where with her father’s permission, she is allowed time alone in the early morning hours to write. Mostly taking place out of sight from everyone else, her poems offer a window into her soul, where no one in her lifetime could imagine the extent of her productivity, as she was a prolific writer, totaling nearly 1800 poems, yet only a handful were printed during her lifetime, as women were not recognized as having the same artistic stature as men, a view that didn’t change until the latter half of the 20th century. Dickinson’s first volume of poetry was published four years after her death, but in an altered form, as publishers attempted to simplify what they believed to be a more correct language. It wasn’t until 1955 that a complete and unabridged anthology of her work was published.
Raised in a Puritan era in the New England town of Amherst, Massachusetts (though shot near Antwerp, Belgium), Emily stayed with her family her entire life, feeling love and satisfaction in the comfort of family and home, seldom leaving home, having few friends, receiving only occasional guests, where she led a reclusive and contemplative life. In one extraordinary interior shot, as the camera glides across the room, the countenance of Emily’s character morphs into another actress, Cynthia Nixon, which is done so well the audience feels like bursting into applause, viewed with a fierce intelligence and a strong determination, with the film balancing her spoken thoughts with an interior voice-over that reads bits and pieces of her poems out loud. Again, there is a blatant artificiality with this aesthetic choice that doesn’t make it easy on the viewers, allowing the changing moods to shift and feel discombobulated, growing overly dramatic to the point of melodrama, a device that keeps viewers off-kilter, where the director’s uncompromising vision is a difficult film to watch. Yet early on one is struck by her brilliance, as she is used to being the smartest person in the room, but not always happy about it, knowing that marriage would suffocate her creativity, instead guarding her fierce independence, yet feeling great disappointment in her self-imposed isolation, as it prevents her from having a larger social impact. Her tender yet austere father is played by a nearly unrecognizable Keith Carradine, not seen by this viewer since the Alan Rudolph films, CHOOSE ME (1984 ), TROUBLE IN MIND (1985), and THE MODERNS (1988), and prior to that Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), given heightened presence by being a one-time Congressman, where he is viewed throughout as a man of intellect and respect. Her older brother Austin (Duncan Duff) joins his father’s law firm while living next door with his wife Susan, Johdi May, still the youngest recipient of the Best Actress Award at Cannes for the film A WORLD APART (1988), though Jennifer Ehle as her younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie) is one of the film’s revelations, as she is her sister’s equal in every respect, with no one any closer to Emily or knowing her any better. She is like Emily’s alter-ego, balancing her mood swings while providing the social grace and dignity that Emily often eschews. Their love of the Brontë sisters is unsurpassed in a time when their writing was poorly regarded, while Emily is openly dismissive of Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, calling it “gruel.” Her outspokenness in challenging conventional thinking is legendary in this corner of the world, where her reputation is challenged from time to time, but few provide the outward joie de vivre of her best friend, Vryling Buffam, Catherine Bailey, probably an invention of Davies’ imagination, whose energy and enthusiasm is infectious, stealing every scene she’s in with a kind of offbeat, Helena Bonham Carter, acerbic charm. Many of their scenes together take place while dressed to the hilt, walking the grounds of the house while twirling parasols, as if plucked from a 19th century French impressionist painting. Their joyous back and forth wit and banter could easily be the centerpiece of the film, much of it intentionally exaggerated and humorous, but instead it represents a kind of utopian hope that sadly never materializes.
There are distinctly original sequences sprinkled throughout this chamber drama, filmed by German cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, who also filmed The Deep Blue Sea (2012), though none stand out more than the Dickinson family posing for daguerreotypes, with the cameraman begging the father to smile, causing him to shout out “I’m smiling!” but his countenance never changes, until each one slowly seems to age right before our eyes, revealing a kind of Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray effect, which is an extraordinary way to express time passing. With friends and family suddenly abandoning her, including a slowly agonizing death of her bedridden mother, which only increased Emily’s domestic responsibilities, while losing her friend Vryling, who decided to settle for the compromise of marriage, where her departure is like the end of all youthful ideals suddenly disappearing into thin air, with Emily suppressing all romantic notions, confining herself more in her home, self-exiled to her bedroom, often never even venturing downstairs, a habit she shared with her mother. Although brief, Davies does include a profoundly effective Civil War montage of still images, a period coinciding with her most creative output (composing more than 600 poems in just four years), showing bodies strewn on a battlefield, with tattered flags from each side still standing, as battlefield statistics are given for several of the bloodiest altercations. When her father suffers a fatal heart attack, the film turns ominous, where Death itself, the personification of fleeting hopes, becomes a central character in the final third of the film, as Emily is so effected by it. Few directors express the physical agony of brutality as well as Davies, whose earlier film, 2016 Top Ten List #7 Sunset Song, left no mistaking the grueling harshness for women in his portrait of Scottish life dominated by men leading up to WWI, where women suffer in silent perpetuity. As Emily grows bitterer and more socially aloof through the years, never marrying, though carrying on long distance written correspondences, she also grows more despondent, reclusive, and lonely, dressing herself all in white, not even allowing visitors to see her, strangely speaking from behind doors or up staircases. Still, it’s a shock to witness the ferocity of the seizures that accompany her affliction with Bright’s disease, a particularly debilitating kidney ailment that precipitates a long physical deterioration. Unfortunately, too much time is spent with the overwhelming depression and despair associated with this lingering malady, showing a deference for profound melodramatic suffering, where the family drifts into an inert claustrophobic dysfunction, suddenly aware that they failed to live up to their earlier hopes and ambitions, where there’s nothing left to do about it. Still, the gentle and forgiving kindness expressed by her sister Vinnie takes the sting out of Emily’s disappointment with her brother’s blatant moral failings, pleading “We’re only human, Emily. Don’t pillory us for that,” salvaging what’s left of family devotion, though he tries her patience, having the last word by cruelly reading a newspaper article with one of Emily’s publishers minimizing the worth of female writers, declaring them sad and unhappy creatures writing literature of misery, filled with too much hopelessness and despair that blinds them through their tears, a strikingly arrogant and inaccurate assessment of the time, yet a typically male view that unfortunately prevailed for the next hundred years, which has the effect of freezing this disgraced imprint not only onto their deteriorating family relations, but to the surrounding cultural world at large. In one of the more surreal scenes, Emily is visited by a faceless visitor, as if in a dream, who may be the presence of Death, but disappears as quickly as he came. By the time Death arrives, it is accompanied by readings of her most recognized poem, Because I could not stop for Death, first published in 1862, cleverly narrating her own funeral, where the cosmic music of Charles Ives, Charles Ives - The Unanswered Question - YouTube (6:07), plays out over the end credits.