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‘A Quiet Passion’: Terence Davies’ Emily Dickinson Biopic Leaves Critics Divided

'A Quiet Passion': Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson Biopic Leaves Critics Divided

Reading festival reviews from afar can be an exhilarating experience or deflating one, but sometimes the critical dissension leaves you with no better idea what to expect from a film than if no one had seen it at all. It’s not that the reviews of “A Quiet Passion,” Terence Davies’ portrait of Emily Dickinson, are split — that happens often enough — but that they seem to draw opposite conclusions from the same set of facts. Are the stylized witticisms which Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) swaps with her younger sister, played by Jennifer Ehle, an off-key attempt to emulate the gilded froth of Whit Stillman, an attempt at drawing-room humor from a director whose instincts have always tended towards the somber? Or are they deliberately oppressive, reflecting Dickinson’s sharp intelligence but also her inability to escape her surroundings, and prefiguring her eventual death? Is Davies’ relative spurt of activity — he’s made as many movies since 2008 as he did in the twenty years before, with the last, “Sunset Song,” premiering in Toronto last September — an occasion for joy, or is the contemplative director spreading himself too thin, rushing into production on a movie whose tone hasn’t been worked out to his own exacting standards? Reading through the collective reviews that have surfaced so far is like poring over a poem you can’t immediately decipher: It’s intriguing, but somewhat frustrating as well.

“A Quiet Passion” doesn’t yet have U.S. distribution, so those of us stuck Stateside will have to wait a while to see for ourselves, but take heart: “Sunset Song” will be along in May.

Reviews of “A Quiet Passion”

Guy Lodge, Variety

“Beauty is not caused. It is,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote — a truism not always applicable to the cinema of Terence Davies, which can work mightily hard toward its beauty, often to rapturous effect. This most refined of filmmakers appears to have come unstuck, however, with the story of Dickinson herself. His most mannered and least fulfilling work to date, “A Quiet Passion” boasts meticulous craft and ornate verbiage in abundance, but confines Cynthia Nixon’s melancholia-stricken performance as arguably America’s greatest poet in an emotional straitjacket of variously arch storytelling tones — of which a prolonged experiment with quippy, Whit Stillman-esque deadpan is the most unhappily surprising. An evident labor of love for its suddenly prolific helmer, this “Passion” project nonetheless registers as a missed opportunity. Davies has manifold gifts, but intuitive comic direction may not be among them: His one-liners are so densely sequenced, and delivered with such narrow inflection by an uncertain-sounding cast, that one scarcely has time to notice how many of them mean very little at all. If Davies’ previous feature, last year’s ravishing but heavily starched farmland epic “Sunset Song” (still awaiting U.S. release), was earnest to a fault, this undeniably singular hybrid of screwball solemnity doesn’t seem the best alternative.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Dickinson was obviously a great poet with a beautifully precise command of the English language, as demonstrated in the voiced-over selections from her work. But that seems to suggest to Davies, who also wrote the script, that she never in her life, even in colloquial speech, spoke in anything but the most perfectly parsed complete sentences. The dialogue becomes an almost orgiastic homage to the prim power of the subjunctive mood: “Were I but…” “Had I only…” “Would that I could just…”. It is, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote, the kind of excessively correct English up with which it is difficult to put. Even Oscar Wilde must occasionally have said “Pass the salt,” though in the case of “A Quiet Passion” that would doubtless have been followed by “…or perhaps [pert twinkle, saucy pause] the salt passes you? [pause for laughter, twirl parasol].”

Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter

Beyond the obtuse conventionality of the day, the more immediate question is how the audience can understand these pithy, dense haikus full of abstract nouns that require time and repeated readings to digest. Numerous poems are read in the film, but their intricate meaning is ungraspable before the following dialogue takes over. Whereas in “Sophie’s Choice” the Dickinson poem “Ample Make This Bed” was slowly recited multiple times, allowing its stately verses to reverberate and take hold emotionally, here, where they are so important to understanding the woman, they feel hurried and dry. It is a frustration compounded by the elaborate language used for dialogue by all the characters, as though no one in the family ever spoke in simple direct sentences. Like the difficult Scottish dialogue in “Sunset Song,” the formal period language of the screenplay sets a tone, but also raises a serious obstacle to understanding that persists throughout the film. Though the cast delivers their lines with nonchalance, it takes the ear time to process the unfamiliar phrasing.

Lee Marshall, Screen Daily

At first the tone is stiff and oddly comic, with a whiff of amateur theatricals: it feels at times like an Oscar Wilde play done by a director who’s read too much Brecht. If “A Quiet Passion” grows in stature as we watch, it’s partly thanks to Cynthia Nixon, whose account of a witty, intelligent, rebellious but also reticent and emotionally confused woman takes the edge off Davies’ sometimes grating formalism; Jennifer Ehle too aids and abets with a fine supporting turn as Emily’s younger sister Lavinia, or Vinnie. The film’s power also derives from the slow reveal that what had seemed wooden and slightly pompous — stiff family gatherings in bourgeois interiors, walks on the lawn and living-room exchanges where we have plenty of time to admire the floral pattern on the sofa — are central to the portrait of a woman whose poems take the everyday and make it cast a metaphysical shadow.

Demetrios Matheou, Thompson on Hollywood

It feels like an academic exercise, more appropriate to a history channel. Though there are shards of wit here and there, for the most part the storytelling is dry, and increasingly heavy going. Even when Emily and friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) gaily exchange rebellious repartee, it feels stilted and too much, the words creating overkill; in all, it’s a very, very talky film, with diminishing returns, its increasingly bitter subject reduced in stature as she becomes more entrenched in her misery.

Andrew Pulver, Guardian

Above all, it is Davies’ ability to invest even the most apparently-humdrum moments with some form of intense radiance that sustains his film. Every shot is beautifully composed and lit – as we have come to expect – and the actors deliver every line with absolute conviction. Dropping key poems on to the soundtrack may be a conventional move, but Davies’ selection is unerring and reinforces the emotion at every point. Classical though his shooting style may be, Davies isn’t afraid to try a little digital trickery: he overcomes the awkward age-jump moment when the younger actors are jettisoned by a smart ageing process in a portrait-photography studio. After a long period in the wilderness, “A Quiet Passion” is Davies’ third feature since his comeback documentary “Of Time and the City,” following the Terence Rattigan adaptation “The Deep Blue Sea,” and then “Sunset Song.” We should be relieved that there’s no diminution of powers: rather, the opposite, in that Davies appears to be getting better every time.

Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

Throughout this tender if uneven biopic, Davies separates the woman from the myth. We learn that she led a largely sequestered life, shutting herself off from the outside world after falling into a black hole of despair following a string of deaths in the family. Outwardly she was a proto-feminist firebrand who challenged everyday religious and social values freely and exercised her sharp tongue whenever the mood took her. Yet her strong, forthright personality masked a bruised psyche. Of course, any biographical film is only as good as its lead actor, and in that respect Cynthia Nixon deserves huge credit for her committed, spirited central turn. This is a role that demands both grace and strength, innocence and darkness, and Nixon’s performance, especially in several distressing scenes where her character suffers violent convulsions, is exceptional.

David Hudson, Fandor

That corner is turned well after Davies has morphed the portraits of the young Dickinson siblings into their adult selves and not long after the shock of the Civil War; the color-tinted photographs from the battlefields labeled with the numbers of casualties — tens of thousands each — are a jolt that seems to bring the lights down, and the poetry itself, read in voiceover, becomes the focus through to the end: the ambiguity of morality; the reclusiveness brought on in part by Emily’s conviction that she is less than attractive, but more so by the fear that her “reputation” will be “posthumous”; and death, of course, is not far behind, taking her mother so painfully and slowly (you can’t help but feel that Davies is still haunted by the loss of his mistreated mother) and the even slower dissolution of her own health. Davies’s framing is exquisite throughout, but there is one long shot of Emily in bed as the sun sets that will likely remain the most beautiful I’ll see at this year’s Berlinale.

Geoffrey Macnab, Independent

With its sweeping camera work and shots of the defiant womenfolk twirling their parasols and snapping their fans, the film resembles one of those old Hollywood musicals that Davies so admires. There are dance sequences and much more color than you might expect. Much of the film is set indoors. This is a very faithful recreation of Dickinson’s world but it never feels stolid. The fluid cinematography — those wonderful gliding shots that are found in many of Davies’s films — and the sheer liveliness of the writing and the performances add energy to the storytelling. From time to time, we hear passages of Dickinson’s verse, read beautifully by Nixon, on the soundtrack.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

The film grows quieter as it goes on and revisits most of Davies’s favorite themes: the line between true belief and stifling dogmatism; the texture that memory superimposes on the world; an elegiac, lyrical sense that draws the audience into deep emotion. Yet it’s also quite funny, especially near the beginning, when the spirited siblings are teasing their staid, pompously pious aunt. As I watched, I kept thinking of “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s marvelous film about the life of painter J.M.W. Turner, which spent more time helping us feel what it was to live through Turner’s eyes than just telling us about events in his life. The fact of a biographical film is that we know the protagonist dies eventually, whether onscreen or off, and the melancholy and wistfulness of that fat hovers over the whole film. For a poet obsessed with eternity, hope, and beauty, that’s all the more strong.

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