Friday, 4 August 2017

Movie Review: A Quiet Passion (2017)



Well, this is awkward. As some of my more frequent readers may have noticed, I’ve been a bit out of commission for a while now, far longer than even my biggest slumps to date. This is a result of easily the most bizarre month I’ve ever had, being sick with one thing or another with severe overlap between them, to the point where I’m actually typing out this introduction from a hospital bed. Needless to say, I’m pretty bummed right now. Seeing as how trying to get back into my usual routine with a bad film didn’t work out so well last time, let’s see if I can change that with some proper cinematic soul food. Seriously, just thinking about this film is already putting me in better spirits and, by the end of this review, I hope you’ll understand why. This is A Quiet Passion.


The plot: Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), a reclusive 19th century poet, is struggling to get her work noticed, as most during her time wrote her off for being a woman writing poetry. As she stays connected with her sister (Jennfier Ehle), brother (Duncan Duff), mother (Joanna Bacon) and father (Keith Carradine), and the American Civil War looms, she is determined to keep true to herself and, in spite of contemporary attitudes, be remembered for her work.

Nixon may be remembered by most audiences as part of the unholy quartet at the heart of Sex And The City, but after this film, that preconception has completely left my mind. Not only does she sell the incredibly sharp dialogue she is offered, her depiction of Dickinson’s declining health is harrowing to the point of being legitimately painful to sit through. Of course, that’s only because it feels so close to reality that it makes one feel like it shouldn’t be on the big screen, but as I’ll get into, that kind of honesty is what ultimately sells this feature. Ehle and Duff as Emily’s siblings feel properly fleshed out and their respective chemistries with Nixon make for absolutely enthralling conversations. Carradine (not Jeremy Irons, as I initially thought upon first watch) portrays patronly authority with enough soul to keep him from feeling flat at any point, best exemplified by his conversation with Duff about Austin’s desire to participate in the U.S. Civil War. Bacon as Emily’s mother brings some of the harder emotions of the entire film, Eric Loren as the reverend makes for a very warming and humane presence (while Simone Milsdochter is intentionally stiff and reserved to the point of genuine awkward comedy as his wife) and Catherine Bailey as Vryling Buffum… honestly, I have no other way to say it: I’ve fallen in love with this woman. The free-spirited nature of her character, the openness of her words and the impossibly poignant statements that she makes in pretty much every scene she’s in result in a presence that almost, but not quite, eclipses that of Dickinson herself.

As you’ve probably picked up on already, I am full of positive things to say about this film’s writing, to the point where it makes me somewhat self-conscious. If brevity is truly the soul of wit, then my own writings are easily the most witless entries on the Internet; I’m hardly the best person to judge the worth of the written word. However, if I gave a single care for how people judge my written word, I would never touch a piece of paper again. What I’m trying to say is that, much like Churchill, the dialogue here is so bloody good that I actively wish that I could write this well. Every line of dialogue is bursting with wit, uttered by characters whom possess the sharpest of human tongues, and yet none of it feels wasteful or just wit for its own sake. Instead, because of the constant focus of the humanity of the people talking, their sparkling conversations feel like they genuinely speak to some form of tangible reality. Whether it’s adding a touch of spite to another person’s opinion or speaking contemporary truths that, somehow, still ring true in today’s world, I legitimately cannot speak highly enough of Terrence Davies’ writing here. Poetry, to quote Coleridge, is the best words in the best order and that’s essentially what we get here; once again, a far greater mind than my own was able to sum up what makes this script work so well in a single line that took me a whole paragraph to even glimpse at.

Not that the brilliance on display is all in writing, however. As much as the phrase has become associated with higher-class art critics and (to be honest) pretentious-as-all-hell filmmakers, this production is a terrific showing of the use of visual poetry as well. Cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (AKA the guy who shot the atrociously annoying Mortdecai) just glides through each scene, breezing through every conversation and capturing just as much of the film’s world as is needed to prove a given point. Filming conversations in film is a deceptively easy process: You may only be turning a camera towards people talking, hardly the most strenuous activity actors could be doing, but it’s difficult to make just two or more people talking seem interesting or, more accurately, seem important. The story itself is rather minute, focusing solely on Emily and the furthest it stretches from there is to her relationships and witticisms with her family, and yet it feels like the most absorbing thing you could be spending your time with. Everything from the dialogue to the inner turmoil to the frequent bouts of illness and subsequent death, no singular moment feels like it spends too little or too much time being focused on. Everything is given its time to breathe, and yet it doesn’t feel like we’re lingering on any one moment for any longer than we need to. It is not only rare for a film’s pacing to be this perfect; it’s supposed to be impossible.

So, what’s the grander point of all this? Is there a grander point? Well, given how the main focus is the life of a poet, it delves into a fairly simple question: What makes a poet? In keeping with the writer/director’s seeming ease in putting together this film structurally, the answer to that question is shockingly simple: Honesty. Knowing how sheer fidelity to the real-life story films are often based on is near-impossible (hence why I rarely, if ever, hold films up to that standard), I haven’t taken the time out to research how accurate this may or may not be to the real Emily Dickinson’s life. Not that you’ll feel much need to, though, because even if the events we see may or may not have even occurred, the film makes it feel like the most real thing to have ever happened. And no one part of this film better showcases that than Nixon as Dickinson, a force of raw and unflinching honesty that highlights both the worth of her poetry (which is used expertly, juxtaposed against key events in her own life) and the mind that created it. Dickinson is shown to be courageous, theologically complex in her reaction to God, death and all in-between, and never one to bite her tongue. Her ability to arrange words that speak to the human condition (vague praise, I know, but hear me out) is matched only by her verging-on-requirement to call out the world for what it is. Hell, a crucial scene where she berates another character’s infidelity ended up making me realize a certain fallacy in my own take on these types of conversations in media. I believe in truth mattering far more than Man’s feelings, but not every truth is worth ending a connection with another person over; it took watching this film for that to actually sink in for me. Basically, on top of everything else, I get the feeling that this film will somewhat alter my understanding of the world after having seen it for the better.

All in all, I absolutely love this movie to within an inch of its existence. The acting is ideal in every regard, the writing is deeply witty with some of the funniest dialogue I’m expecting to hear for a very long time, the production makes tremendous skill seem dead easy with how much it packs into such a small space, and the overall effect is what all poetry should aspire to do: Light a fire within the human soul. This isn’t a film to be watched but experienced, letting the multi-disciplinary poetry wash over the senses and tap into something truly heartfelt in the process. My earlier insecurity with my own form of writing mainly exists because, when dealing with a film this worthy of genuine praise, I would like to be able to offer it what it deserves. I can only hope I have done just that. It ranks higher than Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, as this film not only aims for more deeper emotions, but it never fails to hit the mark in doing so. However, despite completely adoring the dialogue and the resulting feel of the film, I still can’t conjure up as much respect for the writing here as I can for John Wick: Chapter 2, a film that did even better in making a confined space feel like an entire galaxy unto itself.

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