Friday, 21 April 2017

A Quiet Passion

Celebrating the remarkable poet Emily Dickinson, unrecognised in her lifetime

Written by Jason Solomons


Terence Davies is without doubt one of Britain’s finest film-makers. His best films beat with a mix of popular poetry, high art, bubbling rage and suffocating religion.

At his lyrical finest, he is a unique artist, painterly and personal, the man behind misery memoirs such as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes as well as an excellent adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s melodrama The Deep Blue Sea in 2011.

I admired his recent Sunset Song, with a great performance from former model Agyness Deyn suffering various tragedies in the Scottish highlands. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Now comes A Quiet Passion, Davies’ take on the life of 19th- century American poet Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon, best-known as Miranda from Sex and The City. Dickinson is celebrated for her verse on everyday, homely details, her acute observances and her frustrations.

Hers was a closeted life in Amherst, Massachusetts, straitened by religion and convention, so you can see the attraction to the story for Davies who has long specialised in misunderstood heroines. You might recall Gillian Anderson in his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Sadly, I don’t remember it fondly. And I have to admit, with heavy heart, that Emily Dickinson didn’t do it for me either. ‘The hour of lead’, is one of her famous lines, and watching this, I knew what she was talking about – only it felt longer.

Davies’ screenplay is, I’m sure, intended to contain great depths in its almost-continuous trading of elegant barbs. ‘All the best compliments are dubious,’ says Emily. ‘That’s their charm.’ But it’s as if everyone is auditioning for an Oscar Wilde play and, frankly, it very quickly becomes tedious.

I longed for something to wipe the beatifically toothy grins off the faces of Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, who plays Emily’s sister Vinnie. But not even the Civil War seems to loosen their rictus of politesse, although a handsome preacher named Wadsworth briefly causes Emily’s heart to flutter like one of the fans she and the other ladies occasionally waft. ‘Let us be nothing today but superficial,’ they twitter, before having giggling fits about reading Jane Austen or even, heaven forfend, Mrs Gaskell.

Davies seems to think we will suffer these characters simply out of sisterly pity at their unheralded status as women. ‘Live as a woman for a week,’ she chides her brother Austin, ‘and you will find it neither congenial nor trivial.’ Austin prefers not to argue, and I don’t blame him. But so little happens. There’s the odd stroll around ‘our modest garden’, a few scenes of parasol twirling and awkward teas and that’s about it. Most of the time, Emily sits in her room, pen poised, while Nixon delivers a poem in voice-over. It’s all very elegant, of course, beautifully shot by Florian Hoffmeister to reference American paintings of the period, and all very… as it should be.

The seething frustrations of life as an unheralded and relatively under-appreciated, under-published woman are contained under that pained smile. You can see why Davies, who, despite his revered status among aficionados, has endured his share of rejection from film financiers over the years, feels we should be appreciative.

Yet despite the wit and well- turned phrases, I’m afraid there’s nothing to surprise or thrill, nothing to read in between, above or below the lines, which is quite the opposite of Dickinson’s poetry. ‘Hope is the thing with feathers,’ she once wrote. But this film never takes flight.


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