Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Emma Bell, Jodhi May, Duncan Duff
Few three word combinations strike me with as much terror as 'Period Costume Drama'. If the period isn't the late 19th century and the costume doesn't include a cowboy hat, I'll generally struggle with the stuffiness of the genre. In recent years however we've seen a minor revolution in the period drama, with movies like Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner and Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship winning me over with their relatively rock 'n roll approach to a genre not usually known for its energy and wit. The revolution continues with Terence Davies' hilarious and heartbreaking take on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson.
We're introduced to Dickinson as a young woman, played by Emma Bell, just finishing her tenure at a stuffy religious school and all set to dominate her field of poetry. She's a daring figure for her time, taking delight in questioning authority figures, from representatives of the church to her stone-faced father (Keith Carradine).
Davies then presents us with a novel way of transitioning time as with the aid of CG, Bell morphs into an older Dickinson, played by a stellar Cynthia Nixon, while posing for a photograph. With the 50-year-old Nixon playing Dickinson in her mid-thirties, we see the toll a brief period of time has taken on her appearance and her spirit. Far from the firecracker of the opening scenes, Dickinson is now a withdrawn, reclusive figure, still living at the family home as she watches her friends disappear into loveless marriages.
Dickinson is a figure both tragic and inspiring, a woman cruelly born to the wrong era. Her poems find a publisher, but as a woman she struggles to be taken seriously, particularly by her own family members. She builds a rod for her own back through her hatred of her plain looks, writing off any possible suitors before they even have a chance to see the woman behind the words. And as any artist should, she flagellates herself with the gorse-stick of doubt.
It's not all misery though, as Davies peppers the angst with genuinely laugh out loud moments, thanks to some of the most barbarous dialogue this side of Glengarry Glen Ross. Dickinson and her small band of female allies tear verbal strips off anyone who enters their vicinity, wielding the accoutrements of 19th century ladies, fans and umbrellas, like Ninjas wield swords and throwing stars. A standout is Catherine Bailey as proto-feminist Vryling Wilder Buffum, a serpent-tongued society girl who comes off like an American cousin of Kate Beckinsale's Lady Susan.
Putting words in the mouth of a historical figure known for their prose is quite a daunting task for a screenwriter, but Davies' dialogue is exquisite, blending seamlessly with the snippets of Dickinson's poetry that plays in voiceover. For the story of a wordsmith, it's a surprisingly cinematic film, with Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister using that most neglected of techniques - the slow pan - to create moving tapestries that speak volumes about the characters arranged within their frames.
The wit of Davies' script and the tragedy of Dickinson's situation will draw tears of joy and sorrow. It's a fitting tribute to a figure who continues to inspire young women to this day, and should be required viewing for all teenage girls.
A Quiet Passion is in UK/ROI cinemas April 7th.