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‘A Quiet Passion’: moments of pure visual poetry

Of the films opening in Spokane today, only one is aimed at a truly arts-oriented audience. And that film, "A Quiet Passion," is opening — no surprise — at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of "A Quiet Passion" that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Capturing a writer’s life isn’t the easiest task for a filmmaker. Make a movie about an artist, and you can just show paintings. Or sculptures. Whatever. With musicians, you can rely on the magic of sound. Boom-shakalaka. Boom.

But writing? Most movies about writers tend to be filled with scenes of characters scribbling with a pen or pounding a keyboard, squinting as they struggle to find the right turns of phrase.

Of course, good films have been made about writers, even if most are as different from one another as a sonnet is from a limerick. Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman gave us “Adaptation,” Bennett Miller “Capote,” the Coen Brothers “Barton Fink.” And no three films on the same topic are more dissimilar.

Clearly, then, British filmmaker Terence Davies took on a difficult task when he decided to write and direct “A Quiet Passion,” which concerns the poet Emily Dickinson. It’s one thing to delve into the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, as Jonze, Kaufman and the Coens did, or even the world of literary gossip as Miller did. It’s quite another to dissect the life of a poet whose best works radiate with meanings that go far deeper than the words used to convey them.

Davies follows the basic chronology of Dickinson’s life, beginning several years after her birth in 1830 through her death in 1886. We first see Dickinson (played by Emma Bell) as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, refusing to identify herself as a Christian. This nonconformist attitude toward religion, as well as her anger and frustration at the limitations placed on women of her day, is a big part of what comprises “A Quiet Passion.”

After leaving school, Dickinson returns home to Amherst, Mass., to live with her father, a lawyer (played by Keith Carradine), her mother, older brother and younger sister. The house is a strict patriarchy, if a somewhat compassionate one. Dickinson’s father does grant her request to stay up at night to write, even though he thinks Dickinson an unbecoming young woman in other ways.

As the film goes on – and older actors take over the roles of Dickinson (now played by Cynthia Nixon) and her siblings – the pressure of living under such constraints begins to show, especially on the women. One early scene is especially telling: a 360-degree pan of a candle- and firelit room, capturing first Dickinson, her father and brother all reading, her sister crocheting, her mother staring silently, then returning to Dickinson who wears an expression of what might be horror, suggesting that she sees her future. Bleak. And lonely.

Such scenes are the best of what Davies’ film has to offer. Some of his other artistic choices are more problematic. Much of the dialogue feels stilted, and the obligatory voiceovers are likely to make sense more to Dickinson scholars than the general public.

If nothing else, “A Quiet Passion” does succeed in portraying the ultimate irony: that a woman whose life was filled with so much anguish could leave behind such a rich legacy of literary beauty.

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