By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires Film Critic Print | Email
Digging into my trove of words rarely used to describe most movies, but certainly apt in the case of director Terence Davies' biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson, "A Quiet Passion," I have located and here employ the term, highbrowed. Truth be told, though I spent much of my formative years at institutions of higher learning where one can stave off the inevitability of work and earn a degree or two by paying the tuition and showing up for class somewhat regularly, I estimate that I just barely learned enough to appreciate this masterpiece.
Continuing in my hifalutin assay of expressions pertinent to this highly intelligent work, note that I've never really liked referring to a film as diverting. Diverting from what? The mere idea conjures all sorts of beleaguering horrors that have caused me to duck into the local Bijou, like Quasimodo seeking sanctuary in Notre Dame. However and nonetheless, sitting in the theater and munching on the high ideals and civility that encompass the albeit often sad and gloomy life of this major American literary figure, I had indeed temporarily made an escape of sorts.
Outside, lousy drivers were screaming obscenities, crooked tycoons, oligarchs and politicians were teaming to feed their money addiction, and half our numbers couldn't care less about the wellbeing of their fellow countrymen. Their behavior all but abnegates the beauty of such higher contemplations. I am for the moment safe inside, a snob, unwilling to relinquish what the fuddy-duddy, patriotic grammar school teachers taught me about the Founding Fathers' dreams. It was about creating a society where truth and humane pursuits would be held in esteem, not scoffed.
Up on the screen, sweet Miss Dickinson, beset with the analogous troubles of her own time, understands only too well the nihilism, despair and loneliness that comes of humankind's inability/and or desire to best utilize the gift of democracy it has been bestowed. And, because she is a woman nearly a century before suffrage is enacted, and slavery is still very much the law of the land among her Southern neighbors, these and other grave political matters can't hide from her condemnation, wittily slipped into the poet's politely acerbic commentary.
Listening to Dickinson's observations as she interacts with relatives and friends on the way to becoming a dedicated poet, though hardly acknowledged in her own time, you wish you had a libretto to reflect on later. Culled from her correspondences and doubtlessly tweaked for effect by director-writer Davies, the steady stream of exquisitely delivered bon mots represents only a portion of the thespic excellence Cynthia Nixon exemplifies in her empathic, loving and cerebrally astute depiction of the literary lioness.
Set at the family home in Amherst, from where the ultimately reclusive Dickinson rarely ventured, the action, though composed mostly of conversations, achieves an absorbing fluidity. While this is in part due to some very engaging performances by those playing the writer's family members and her inner coterie, kudos goes to the cinematographer's dramatically perceptive survey of the Dickinson home's interior. The peripatetic camera caresses the walls and appurtenances, poetically matching the emotional and literary subjects at hand.
Complementing the quietly exciting visuals are the wonderful, period-piece costumes, at once dignifying and hampering in their perceived rigidity. You muse, "Gee, how long does it take to put that stuff on every day? I'm itchy just thinking about it." But it is an often gauzy view we get. Perhaps offsetting to some filmgoers, but an achievement in ambient lighting, the art director's realistic settings say volumes about the sociological effect that dim and tentative candlelight had on our pre-Edison ancestors. While limiting in a host of ways, it certainly bred thinking.
And in that persuading light, the mulling so telling of the times most often alights on thoughts of the church, faith, piety and the near certainty of an afterlife. In this respect, our poet célèbre, adamant about not letting anyone dictate her relationship with G-d, is terrifically eloquent in her speculations. Unlike her father, an avowed true believer, but like him, in that lawyer Edward Dickinson is imbued with that liberal Yankee spirit, Emily is a caution to friends and family who are adoringly appalled by her independent thinking. We applaud it. You go, Emily!
But beware, dear reader. As filmmaker Davies' splendid effort all but assures that his narrative is as accurate as the medium allows, it comes as no surprise when he pulls no punches. In time, following an enchanting exposition that celebrates the seemingly limitless prospects of a brilliant mind, the assaulting rigors that bend our destiny rear their often ugly heads. But this, alas, is where life's lessons are learned. And it is through Emily Dickinson's beautifully humanistic example that "A Quiet Passion" fervently enunciates the inescapable poetry in our journey.
"A Quiet Passion," rated PG-13, is a Music Box Films release directed by Terence Davies and stars Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff. Running time: 125 minutes
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