A quiet passion (Terence Davies, 2016)


A quiet passion, directed by Terence Davies (2016).

Score: a quiet snore.

The biopic is a very ungrateful genre. Writers who pursue it insist in cramming a seventy-odd-year lifespan in under three hours of awkward storytelling, which requires swapping actors, copious amounts of makeup and children who don’t look like their adult counterparts. Emily Dickinson’s biography is also extremely dull and this film didn’t choose to delve instead into her poetic work, artistic convictions or life choices, which are indeed interesting.

Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) received a formal education, went back home and took care of her family. She rarely left the house and eventually she rarely left her bedroom and wrote feverishly. She barely published anything during her life, never married and died of Bright’s disease at fifty-five. There’s not much more to it unless you choose to examine her intellectual life, which this film didn’t.

Technical aspects are good. Production design is lush and beautiful, and part of the movie was shot on location in the Dickinsons’ homestead, which is now a museum. The acting is correct. Some of the actors resemble the real people they play remarkably, such as Duncan Duff (who plays Austin Dickinson), Keith Carradine (Edward Dickinson) and Noémie Schellens (Mabel Loomis Todd). Nevertheless, the characters look too old when the actors are swapped and their ages only look appropriate by the end of the movie.

Since it’s a movie about a poet, everyone in it has to speak like they’re in a Romantic theatre play. I understand the movie isn’t pretending that those people really spoke like that at home after supper and I get where this is coming from, but it didn’t work for me. Still, the dialogue sometimes doesn’t make sense. Cases in point: at the beginning of the movie, Emily is roasting her Aunt about a poem she got published and then gets very upset and offended when her Aunt despises her own poems. What did she expect? Why did she want approval from someone she clearly scorns? Later on, female dandy Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) dances a ninety-second polka with a gentleman; we can see that their lips are not moving and the piano is loud but when she comes back it turns out they have had time to discuss Ptolemaic astronomy. At some point Emily says something along the lines of “I rarely see anyone”, when five minutes earlier she was having the time of her life at a party. The plot they try to squeeze out of her family’s story, which is mostly accurate, is uninteresting.

Dickinson’s seclusion and white dress are only shown when she’s already near the end of her life, while in reality it started while she was still young and went on for decades until her death. This change serves a deeper purpose in the plot: this movie looks to portray Dickinson as a bitter woman who sighed for a husband and whom nobody loved because she was too ugly. Having the doors of love and marriage closed to her forever, the poor thing had to resort to writing poetry and being a genius, which is the only thing ugly women get, and is barred to beautiful women. By moving her decision to seclude and write further into the future, the screenwriter makes sure that this is a consequence of a failed relationship, not a conscious decision she made while still young because she refused to be a wife and subservient to a husband.

Dickinson was intellectually aristocratic and felt suspicious of fame and glory, while in the movie she craves for it and is mostly misunderstood and underestimated. Her intellectual prowess is nowhere to be found and one of her most famous poems in which she expresses this suspicion ([…] How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog –  / To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  / To an admiring Bog!) is wasted on her newborn nephew like a nursery rhyme. Her sensitivity towards nature isn’t there, nor her interest in death and her morbidity, though her lack of faith is extensively discussed. Her real-life best friend, confidant and intellectual peer, Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), is reduced to a demure cuckquean who lies on her back and thinks of England. Instead, Emily is given sassy Oscar Wilde expy Miss Buffam to follow around and look at admiringly. Miss Buffam is assertive and sharp but ends up succumbing to marriage in order to drive deep this idea that you can run but you can’t hide unless you’re ugly like Emily Dickinson.

Too long, didn’t read: wouldn’t recommend.

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