Tuesday, April 11, 2017

With A QUIET PASSION, Terence Davies has given us his masterpiece (so far, at least)...

... as well as gifting that fine actress Cynthia Nixon with the opportunity to shine brightly in the best role she's had thus far. So very good is Ms Nixon that her work bears comparison with that of last year's best actress, Rebecca Hall. In A QUIET PASSION -- which tells the story of one of America's greatest poets, Emily Dickinson -- writer/director Terence Davies has found the subject and the means to express it that puts into play all of what is best about his work (his great feeling for period style, speech and behavior) and none of what sometimes mars his efforts (extremely slow pacing in which meaning can disappear into the too lengthy moment). Here, everything works together to form what seems to me very close to film perfection. 

Most surprising of all is how wonderfully funny, genuinely witty and humorous so much of his movie turns out to be. (The filmmaker is shown at right.) Could Emily Dickinson have been this charming and delightful? I hope so, for together Ms Nixon and her director certainly make the poet seem so. And very believably, too. Granted, hers is very dry wit, but that would seem to befit the time and place --Massachusetts in the mid 1800s -- and Davies' dialog is endlessly enriching. Really, we hang on every word as we savor the humor, anger and, just as often, the surprise.

Dickinson was an original, a quiet rebel who simply stood her ground, as we note from the film's first scene, in which the head mistress of a girls' school gives the younger version of Emily (played by Emma Bell, above) a good dressing down -- at which our young poet stands her ground and gives us an appropriate taste of what is to come.  Mr. Davies has always preferred quiet, smooth elisions to any flashy effects in his films. Here his flashiest and most remarkably effective is a family photo session in which the younger Emily morphs subtly into the older Ms Nixon, below. This is brilliantly, beautifully handled, and I'd watch the entire film again just to see it once more.

The entire Dickinson family, in-laws included, is brought to wonderful life by the ace cast Mr. Davies has assembled. Keith Carradine (below) seems to grow into a better and stronger actor as he ages. This may be his finest hour playing Emily's stern but loving father who, as much as he is troubled by her behavior appears to somehow secretly treasure it. How Carradine exhibits this is one of the film's wonderful and most subtle accomplishments and also provides the chance for the actor to show a delightfully stern comedic sense. (His "I am smiling" is perhaps the movie's most hilarious line.)

The lovely Jennifer Ehle (below, right) plays Emily sister, Vinnie, with such graciousness and joy that you'll want a sister so tender but honest, while Duncan Duff handles the brotherly duties with typically patriarchal entitlement -- a state against which Emily smartly and rightly railed for most of her life.

Even the sad sister-in-law Susan (a fine turn by the splendid Jodhi May, shown below right) is given her due, in one scene in particular, in which sapphic love is alluded to but not directly addressed.

This seems wise, as -- from what we can tell by Davies' interpretation of Dickinson's life -- the poet would have wanted a heterosexual love but due to a combination of her moral stringency, fear of intimacy and health problems both physical and mental (very possibly a kind of agoraphobia or even something a bit bi-polar), any love relationship beyond that of her immediate family was not to be.

Throughout his movie, Davies intersperses Dickinson's poetry, as appropriate to the theme of the moment. This should send both newcomers and lovers of her work back to the source. The cinematography, too (by Florian Hoffmeister), as per usual for a Davies film, is first-rate.

But family -- ah, what that appears to have meant to Emily! The movie captures this as well as any film I've seen, yet without the usual attached sentimentality (think Little Women in any of its incarnations). There is a stringency here that befits Dickinson so very well, and there is marvelous good humor, too. There is also a coming-to-terms with sickness and death that's appropriate to a tale like this and characters such as these.

I would say that A Quiet Passion is a masterpiece of biographical film-making. But that is too puny. Let's just call it a masterpiece, period. From Music Box Films and running two hours and five minutes, the movie opens this Friday, April 14, in New York City (at the newly re-opened Quad Cinema and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and at three venues in Emily's home state of Massachusetts. On April 21 the film hits Ann Arbor and Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal), and from there it will soon open across the entire country. Here in South Florida, it opens on May 12 at the AMC Sunset Place, South Miami; the Living Room Theaters, Boca Raton; and the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and venues.click here, then scroll down and click on THEATERS. 

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