24 May 2017

A Quiet Passion


Few cinematic genres are as consistently awful as the biopic. Many of the greatest filmmakers have avoided any temptation to enter that genre, and the ones that, for reasons of finances or temporary insanity, did give it a shot usually ended up creating some of their worst films. (Mike Leigh is one of the few great filmmakers to have also created great biopics with Topsy-Turvy and Mr. Turner.)

Biopics of writers are especially hazardous. Most writers, after all, aren't as cinematic in their lives as Hunter S. Thompson or William S. Burroughs. Making the highly interior work of writing into something cinematically interesting is a nearly insuperable challenge, a challenge that usually results in Romantic cliché and general absurdity.

Which brings me to Terence Davies' latest film, A Quiet Passion, a biopic of Emily Dickinson, a writer with perhaps the least cinematic life of them all. I am fascinated by Dickinson's poetry, but I'm not a Davies acolyte; I find his gauzy aesthetic generally uncompelling. However, I also think his adaptation of A House of Mirth is magnificent. Thus, I went to see A Quiet Passion wary but hopeful.

Alas, I thought it was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. The script is stunningly bad, the acting animatronic, and the portrayal of Dickinson narrow.

My opinion is among a small minority. Most critics have viewed the film positively, even rapturously. I won't try to explain this beyond saying it's obvious that I am just the wrong audience for Terence Davies movies. I will admit, though, a slight suspicion that if Davies' name were erased from the film, the criticism would be harsher. It's not just that once a filmmaker has become celebrated for a particular style and approach, lovers of that style and approach react in Pavlovian ways to it. I'm sure there's some of that, but there's also a sense of following a career, of watching the (beloved) style and approach develop with new material. In some ways, that's one of the better effects of auteurism: it allows us to appreciate a variety of works by a filmmaker we admire. I, for instance, am so besotted with David Lynch that I can even find things to praise in Dune. There ought to be sensible limits though. I'm certainly not going to try tell you that Dune is a good movie.

I will be curious to see the response of Dickinson scholars to this movie. Most film critics probably don't know anything about Dickinson or her poetry, but that really doesn't matter: a dully accurate biopic is still a dull pic; an utterly inaccurate and thrilling work of art is still a thrilling work of art. 

What does matter, though, to at least a certain extent, is the kind of Dickinson that Davies chooses to portray. While I'm not especially concerned with the accuracy of a film, I am interested in the sorts of decisions filmmakers make about what to include and not include. To exclude, for instance, characters such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Otis Phillips Lord, is to choose to portray Dickinson's literary and emotional lives in a particular way — a way that matches Davies' interest in repression, but which creates an unnecessarily attenuated portrayal.


The strongest negative reaction to the film that I have found is Joanna Drucker's at the LA Review of Books, a review that is somewhat slipshod, but nonetheless raises a few important points. Drucker's hatred for the film makes her careless ("Whoever wrote the script..." she says of a film where the first credits at the end read: "Written and Directed by Terrence Davies"), and she objects multiple times to the portrayal of Amherst as a place that "resembles the English countryside of a Merchant-Ivory film instead of a tightly plotted New England town" — but the exteriors were filmed at the actual house in Amherst and we never see anything beyond its grounds, so we never actually see the countryside. (And the Merchant-Ivory reference is just lazy. Whatever its faults, Davies' aesthetic is quite different from the slicker Merchant-Ivory approach.) Beyond whatever budgetary limits may have kept the film from showing more of Main Street and the town, the choice to limit the exteriors to brief shots of the grounds of the Homestead fits with Davies' desire to portray Dickinson as a shut-in. Without straining the budget much, he could have shown her as the avid gardener that she was; again, though, such a choice would have pushed against his desire to portray her as a woman who, after a certain point in life (that he implies correlated with the move of Rev. Charles Wadsworth to San Francisco), not only never left her house, but hardly ever ventured beyond the confines of her bedroom.

Though hardly someone to trust on details, Drucker raises some points worth considering, and her anger at Davies for portraying Dickinson as an embittered spinster is an anger that deserves venting, because it's the sort of mythical view of Dickinson that has been promulgated for personal and ideological reasons first by Dickinson's warring editors and then by readers whose desire is for a quietly passionate, painfully sensitive, endlessly morose Dickinson stuck in her bedroom. That there are moments of Dickinson's life and writings to provide evidence for such a portrayal is undoubtable; but to respect her life and work is to recognize that there was much more to her, as well. It is that respect that A Quiet Passion lacks.

Beyond its failures as biography, A Quiet Passion more significantly fails as dramatic art. The dialogue seems like it is written by someone attempting to conjure an Oscar Wilde play from Dickinson's life, and the scenes are often structured like the worst of biopics: we have The Scene Where Everybody Addresses Everybody By Name So We Know Who Is Who, and The Scene Where Emily Is Rebellious, and The Scene Where Emily Debates Slavery, and The Scene Where Emily Gets Angry And Must Write A Poem, etc. The Civil War is represented through colorized photographs and a flag that, like so many of the other performances, flaps woodenly. (It's a Serious Moment. There are many Serious Moments.) Every scene in the first 3/4ths of the film is there primarily (if not exclusively) to highlight a significant moment of Dickinson's life rather than for any other reason, and then in the last quarter the scenes move us obviously and inexorably toward Dickinson's death from reclusion.

The use of the poetry is often clunky or self-consciously poetic, read by one of the actors playing Dickinson (the less said about the first, Emma Bell, the better) in voiceover. In a moment likely intended to be touching, but which was for me hilarious, Emily recites one of her most famous poems, "I'm Nobody", to an infant. Once Emily is dead, her ethereal voice recites "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" while her casket is loaded into a hearse, a moment so on-the-nose that I could do nothing but groan.

For all these faults, it is the dialogue that is truly abysmal. Many scenes work like this:

CHARACTER A
Something knowingly aphoristic and pithy.

CHARACTER B
Something knowingly aphoristic and pithy.

CHARACTER A
Something knowingly aphoristic and pithy.

VRYLING BUFFAM
(recite like a hammy community theatre actor)
Something even more knowingly aphoristic and pithy.

The more dramatic scenes work like this:

CHARACTER A
Something cutting.

CHARACTER B
Cutting reply.

CHARACTER A
Yelling.

CHARACTER B
Yelling.

CHARACTER A
Yelling.

CHARACTER B
Yelling.

CHARACTER C
Please be respectful and repressed.

(Somebody leaves the room.)

CHARACTER A/B
Whispered regret and/or resolve to continue being angry, but more sotto voce.

There's a bunch of this, but then the last half hour or so of the film (it's hard to judge time in a movie that feels like it lasts ten times as long as it does) is devoted to sickness and death, with long shots of Dickinson having seizures, her mother drooling and dying, Dickinson having more seizures, Dickinson dying.

It's just dreadful, and the hapless actors don't have much to work with. Cynthia Nixon's performance as Dickinson is impressive not so much for what she does as for what she does with what little she is given by the thumpingly mannered script. Hers is the only performance that feels alive — all the other performances seem like the actors are wearing ill-fitting Halloween costumes. A lot of the fault for this is in the dialogue, which only a genius could deliver in a convincing way, but it's also in Davies' direction. If he were aiming for something Brechtian (as Fassbinder did), then the hollow characterizations and wooden performances would seem intentional and part of a complex dance of surface and meaning, a commentary not only on the content of the film but also on its form and genre. While A Quiet Passion often feels like a parody of biopics and determinedly poetic filmmaking, I saw no clues to that parody being intentional. 

I could go on and on with the damnation, but there's no need, because I can end by simply saying: This film is worse than J. Edgar.