Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A QUIET PASSION - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TIFF 2016 - Davies Does Dickinson Delectably

A Quiet Passion (2016)
Dir. Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Emma Bell, Keith Carradine,
Jennifer Ehle, Joanna Bacon, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May

Review By Greg Klymkiw
THERE is a word
Which bears a sword
Can pierce an armed man.
It hurls its barbed syllables,—
At once is mute again,
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted brother
Gave his breath away.
- Emily Dickinson
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.

There is war in this exquisite dramatic biography of poet Emily Dickinson. There is violence and there are battles. It is all, however, like all of the greatest films by Terence Davies, very, very quiet.

The war waged in A Quiet Passion is one against patriarchal propriety - both societal and religious. Davies presents us with the life of Dickinson from her adolescence (Emma Bell) through adulthood (Cynthia Nixon) and to her sad, painful death at age 55 from Bright's (kidney) Disease. The story is told via the trademarks of Davies - stately, gorgeously-composed tableaux with an accent on measured delivery of dialogue that is rooted exquisitely in the period with which the film is set (in Amherst, Massachusetts from about 1846 to 1866).

There is considerable emphasis placed on Dickinson's relationships with her family and how this inspires and informs her gifts as a poet. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) lives a lonely life and indeed Emily comments, "You always seem so sad." Her mother responds, "My life has passed as if in a dream." And damned if Emily will float gently into the good night. She rages on paper.

Terence Davies has always displayed a special gift for extolling the virtues and servitude of mothers, but he has also been acutely sensitive to portraying patriarchal rule in all its violence and unfairness. Here, Emily's relationship with her father (Keith Carradine) is especially replete with conflict and love. Her father clearly values Emily's individuality, but displays considerable conflict within himself and the demands society places on him. He is on one hand, proud and accepting, yet on the other, prone to anger and frustration over Emily's refusal to be an individual, but to also "play the games" required of a woman.

Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, The Long Day Closes) is unquestionably the greatest living filmmaker in the UK and amongst the world's best filmmakers - ever. I can think of no better filmmaker to tackle the challenge of biographically portraying this great woman of letters. His indelible use of music has always been unique and all his own. Film after film he delivers the most beautiful, heartbreakingly beautiful montages set to music - always evocative of narrative, character and tone.

Though A Quiet Passion has its fair share of such musical montages, Davies is not one to rest idly on his laurels. Given that his film is about one of the greatest poets of all time, he utilizes his poetic approach to cinema by using what might be the greatest music of all - the music of poetry - Dickinson's, of course.

Though there are far too many of these great sequences to catalogue, there are two which occur back-to-back which are not only great examples of what a magnificent screenplay Davies has wrought, but proof positive of his consummate artistry as a filmmaker. Davies etches a particularly harrowing verbal joust between Emily and her father and in its aftermath, he focuses upon the conflicting feelings of anger and sorrow on her father's face as we get an offscreen reading of Dickinson's Love poem XLIV "THERE is a word Which bears a sword". As if this isn't enough to set one's tears into squirt-overdrive, Davies brilliantly follows up the scene with a montage to place the argument-scene in a historical/thematic context by delivering a series of Civil War images set to Dickinson's "To fight around is very brave".

Prepare to lose it emotionally during these two montages. God knows, I did.

As per usual, Davies inspires his entire cast to render superlative performances. Cynthia Nixon knocks the wind out of you as Dickinson (her off-screen readings of the poetry are deeply moving) and an almost unrecognizable Keith Carradine chills to the bone as Emily's father.

What might be the films's greatest triumph is that one could go into it knowing nothing about Emily Dickinson and emerge with both an edifying cinematic experience and a reason to get to know her. This is indeed triumphant - oh-so delicate and oh-so quiet.


A Quiet Passion is a PNP (Pacific Northwest Pictures) release and plays in the TIFF 2016 Masters series.