A Quiet Passion
Directed by Terence Davies
The story of American poet Emily Dickinson from her early days as a young schoolgirl to her later years as a reclusive, unrecognized artist.
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★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
less a biopic than it is an Emily Dickinson simulator. Cynthia Nixon drops hyper-eloquent diss bombs so furiously that Whit Stillman will soil himself when he sees this.
pour one out for the good folks at Music Box, who are heroes for taking this on, and will likely lose every cent they paid for the pleasure.
★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
***this is a profile piece i wrote about Terence Davies for the release of A QUIET PASSION***
Terence Davies is at once both monolithic and anonymous. A critically revered British filmmaker whose work has yet to catch on with general audiences (perhaps, in part, because his films are so crushingly intimate that it almost feels inappropriate to watch them in public), he’s seldom recognized on the street, and sometimes that might be for the best.
“The other day I was feeling low,” he said, “and I just thought: ‘Why am I making films that, like, three people or a dog go and see?’ I know this is feeble, but it really is killing when someone says ‘What do you do?’ ‘Oh, I make films.’ ‘Well, would I have seen some of them? Would I have heard of you?’ And I say: ‘Well, probably not.’”
Of course, some of our greatest artists are tremendously under-appreciated in their own time, though they may be the only ones who understand just how much that can sting.
★★★★½ review by Victor Morton on Letterboxd
A QUIET PASSION (Terence Davies, Britain, 2017) 9 R
On second view, A QUIET PASSION (a title that could not unreasonably be paraphrased A LOVE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK) transparently became what I inchoately inferred on first view — Terence Davies’s spiritual autobiography regarding his own deeply conflicted homosexuality, through a felt kinship with Emily Dickinson on that score.
Davies is openly gay but has said often that he’d rather it weren’t so — he is celibate and it “ruined my life,” he has said. And he has been openly contemptuous of being "called out" on it. Yet it’s also shaped him in ways that he can’t not be either — to pick the most stereotypical of public things, Davies is an enormously witty raconteur Briton with a formal and plummy yet boyish voice that can draw blood in four words or less. When he narrates his Liverpool documentary OF TIME AND THE CITY, it’s like listening to Oscar Wilde, or perhaps Noel Coward. And for much of A QUIET PASSION, that’s Emily Dickinson too. Davies has basically made a drama based on Camille Paglia’s theory of Dickinson — a lesbian-tending morbid sadist. But so beautiful and witty.
In the early part of the film, Dickinson (and to a lesser extent her siblings) are the sharpest wits in the class, especially against religious and familial authority. And Dickinson looks out for other wits and “freethinkers,” attaching herself to a radical feminist and a minister who loves her poetry, but who varyingly desert her over their marriages … the former’s succumbing with cheerful wit to conformity, the latter prevented from responding by his own sexual proclivities. Dickinson literally compares a friend’s marriage to his death. Meanwhile, Dickinson (like Davies) refuses to compromise on her ideals even in the name of career, preferring to shut herself off than feign interest, even in her fans. Cynthia Nixon is well-nigh perfect for this conception of Dickinson, her face waxen and severe but capable of cruel humor.
As the film wears on, the heavier shadow is cast by death, the thing that haunts all and which breeders can cheat via children but which, to cite Paglia again, gays can only cheat via culture. Like poems or movies. The film stylistically decays, the lighting going from bright and high-key to dark and morbid. We’re talking about a poet whose most famous poem is a literal greeting with death and a director who visualized his own death in an early short film. People start dying, Emily falls ill in scenes that recall the greatest of all films about death (CRIES AND WHISPERS). In one incredible sequence, people age 20 years in a series of snapshots In another shot, the camera literally plays the role of a death seducer, musically ascending the stairs, entering Emily’s bedroom and leaving her alone and dead.
Does any of this pattern sound familiar?
Davies on his homosexuality ... www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/being-gay-has-ruined-my-life-1.16328
★★★★ review by Sam Van Hallgren on Letterboxd
Extraordinary. A sustained aesthetic miracle of a movie. All the awards for Cynthia Nixon. It's a master class. Most stars of biopics get credit for pulling off uncanny impersonations; Nixon here makes you believe that you are actually witnessing one of the most brilliant, singular and eccentric minds of the 19th century. Advantage Nixon.
Future biopic makers, take note: avoid cliches of the genre by confining your action to a single location.
Still trying to figure out how Davies pulls off his magic trick of pairing theatricality (the dialogue particularly) and emotional specificity. You could watch the first ten minutes of this film and write it off as a hammy, overwritten costume drama. You would be mistaken.
★★★★ review by Aaron Locke on Letterboxd
Another absolute triumph from Terence Davies. Perhaps the most aptly titled film I've seen in a long time; it is all at once quiet and passionate, following one woman's quiet retreat into the herself while documenting her unique view of the world through the poetry that would not be read until years after her death.
Davies understands the nuance between Emily's limitations and those limitations placed onto her. That subtle difference is key to understanding her as a character, but also as an artist. Emily wrestles against her society and her family, rebelling where she can and enduring what she must. But Davies understands that Emily was not just a woman afflicted by the social norms of her time; she fought against herself, against her own idiosyncratic behaviors and values. Davies utilizes Emily's poetry as a conduit for those feelings she could not express in action.
For me, Davies is able to turn this depiction of Emily Dickinson's life into an examination of the human condition. Perhaps I felt this way because so much of Emily's struggle felt like a mirror to ones I've felt in my own life. It's remarkable to watch Emily contend with unanswerable questions by turning to her art.
All of this works so well because Terence Davies makes it so. His direction is always graceful, often ingenious, and never without beauty. Nevermind the fact that the script is bursting with life - vacillating between such a wide range of human emotion that it leaves other films looking one dimensional in comparison. At about the half way point, the film transitions away from its more prototypical characteristics and finds itself infused with Davies' charms - slow overhead shots, dream landscapes, and operatic montages set to music. It's this transition that mirrors Dickinson's own retreat into solitude. Cynthia Nixon is phenomenal and should surely earn an Oscar nomination, but won't on account of both the release date and the small distribution company.
I cried through the final moments of the film where Davies' delivers to the audience a complex, wholly satisfying emotional conclusion to what was obviously an unfinished life.
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