Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Quiet Passion


Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Ehle as her sister Lavinia in A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion, writer-director Terence Davies' film of the life of Emily Dickinson, has been widely praised. The New Yorker's Richard Brody calls it "a powerfully insightful and shatteringly empathetic bio-pic," while the New York Times' A. O. Scott writes that Davies "possesses a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject."

Visually, perhaps. The film is filled with striking images (cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister), not to mention beautifully re-created 19th-century clothing and interiors. The friends who thought this aspect of the film would appeal to us were absolutely right.

But if Davies possesses a poetic sensibility beyond the visual, it isn't evident from his script. From its very first scenes of a young Emily (Emma Bell) scandalizing her teachers by refusing to attend church A Quiet Passion has the wrong tone. It's hard to say whether the acting is as bad as it sounds, whether the stiff line readings are the director's fault, or whether the blame rests with the stilted dialogue the actors are asked to recite, but I would guess it's a combination of all three. Davies may have a striking visual sense, but he has a tin ear.

Things don't improve very much after a transition to the world of the adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon). In place of conversation the characters lob epigrams at one another. Worst in this regard is Emily's friend Vryling Wilder Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who sounds as though she thinks she's appearing as Lady Bracknell in a dinner-theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Perhaps we can be grateful that there was no attempt to replicate patterns of speech from 19th-century New England; on the other hand, the wide range of accents displayed include many that to my ear are more blandly suggestive of Anaheim than Amherst.


Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and Jodhi May as her sister-in-law Susan in A Quiet Passion

The only actors whose performances rise above the leaden script are Jennifer Ehle as Emily's sister Lavinia and Jodhi May as Emily's sister-in-law Susan. Not surprisingly, both have extensive stage and BBC television experience. Ehle was a luminous Elizabeth Bennet in the superb 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice and has won two Tonys; May has many stage and screen credits, including significant roles in the BBC adaptations of Daniel Deronda and Emma.

Davies' script makes Emily at times sound smug and self-satisfied, which does not match my perception of this supremely self-questioning artist. There is no doubt that Emily's deep strangeness and intensity could be disconcerting: her later editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (inexplicably absent from the film) wrote after an in-person visit that she "drained my nerve power. . .Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But Davies' Emily is often deliberately rude and dismissive, particularly during an uncomfortable tea with a local clergyman and his wife. The black-and-white dichotomies that Davies sets up—the free-thinking artist versus the dull, convention-bound bourgeoise—lack subtlety, to say the least. And as Scott writes in his review, "the enemy of poetry is obviousness." Indeed.

More evidence that Davies is tone-deaf:  early in the film Emily attends a concert, and the singer onstage warbles an opera aria painfully off-key. My partner and I looked at each other: was this a parody, or a joke? Evidently not. As I discovered later, the singer is supposed to be Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale." At the time Lind was the most famous singer in the world. Her American concert tours in the 1850s were mobbed by frenzied crowds. The singer portraying her in the film, Marieke Bresseleers, is a Belgian pop star who was all too clearly overmatched by the music she was asked to sing.

Later in the film Bresseleers also provides the singing voice of Mabel Loomis Todd (Noemie Schellens) when she performs a shaky version of Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" (Night and Dreams). There, her off-key singing might have been indicative of what an amateur home lieder performance might plausibly sound like. But as Jenny Lind? No. And could Davies really not find a true opera singer to perform this music? Richard Brody writes, "All of Davies’s films are filled with music, but in 'A Quiet Passion' he raises cinematic musicality to a new height." I'm not sure what "cinematic musicality" is supposed to mean, but musical musicality certainly isn't raised to any discernible height in this movie.

Apart from its clunkiness, Davies' dialogue is also simply unbelievable. Midway through the film, Emily's father Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine) has some news for her brother Austin (Duncan Duff):
Edward: "Fort Sumter has been fired upon."
Austin: "What does this mean?"
"What does this mean?" Again we wondered if this was supposed to be a joke. Is it conceivable that there would be an adult in Massachusetts in 1861, when the country was poised on the brink of civil war, who would not have immediately grasped the implications of the military forces of a secessionist state firing on those of the U.S. government? Never mind.

There is one moment of realness in Davies' script. When Emily returns to the family home after boarding school, she asks her father for his permission to stay up at night and write. Her pleading tells us volumes about Edward Dickinson's patriarchal sternness and the subordinate position of unmarried daughters in a 19th-century household. If only the rest of the script could have been so nuanced and insightful. Perhaps the next time that Terence Davies wants to make a period film he should let another Davies—Andrew—write the script.

Elly Ameling performing Schubert's "Nacht und Träume" with accompanist Dalton Baldwin.


NACHT UND TRÄUME
(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Heil'ge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;
Nieder wallen auch die Träume
Wie dein Mondlicht durch die Räume,
Durch der Menschen stille Brust.

Die belauschen sie mit Lust;
Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:
Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht!
Holde Träume, kehret wieder!
NIGHT AND DREAMS
(Matthäus Kasimir von Collin,
adapted by Franz Schubert)

Holy night, you sink down;
Down also drift dreams
Like moonlight from the heavens,
Through the quiet hearts of men.

They listen with longing
Calling out when the day awakes:
Come back, holy night!
Fair dreams, come back!

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