Lyri­cal overview of a poet’s life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

B ri­tish di­rec­tor Ter­ence Davies makes films about fam­i­lies, usu­ally dys­func­tional fam­i­lies; no one who saw Dis­tant Voices, Still Lives (1988) is likely to for­get his por­trayal of a vi­o­lent fa­ther and his long-suf­fer­ing wife. The only kind of bru­tal­ity in his lat­est film, A Quiet Pas­sion, is of the men­tal kind. This is a por­trait of Emily Dick­in­son (1830-86), who is con­sid­ered, along with Walt Whit­man, to be Amer­ica’s great­est poet, and Davies’s in­sights into her trou­bled life make for a chal­leng­ing but re­ward­ing ex­er­cise in screen bi­og­ra­phy.

Apart from a brief pe­riod dur­ing which she was a live-in stu­dent at Mount Holyoke Fe­male Sem­i­nary — which she leaves af­ter de­fy­ing the head­mistress, Miss Lyon (Sara Ver­ton­gen), whose re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism she re­jects (“I wish I could feel as oth­ers do”) — Dick­in­son lived her en­tire life in her family home at Amherst, Mas­sachusetts. Beau­ti­fully por­trayed in the film by Cyn­thia Nixon, Emily is a woman who, though she re­acts against the re­stric­tions di­rected against mem­bers of her sex at the time, is un­able to do much about it ex­cept to write her po­etry, lit­tle of which was pub­lished in her life­time. Davies’s screen­play for the film, using un­named sources, shows her as a witty, well­read, in­quir­ing woman whose spirit is grad­u­ally crushed.

“I will not be forced to piety,” she ex­claims at one point, and she in­fu­ri­ates the new pas­tor when she re­fuses to kneel and pray. Her fa­ther — played by an al­most un­recog­nis­able Keith Car­ra­dine, a long way from the sorts of char­ac­ters he has played in the past — is tol­er­ant with her. He gives her per­mis­sion to write her po­etry in the mid­dle of the night, when she can be undis­turbed, and he en­cour­ages her to find a pub­lisher for her work, though the ed­i­tor of Spring­field Repub­li­can, the lo­cal news­pa­per, tells her “women can­not cre­ate the per­ma­nent trea­sures of lit­er­a­ture”.

Emily’s great­est ally is her sis­ter, Lavinia (Jen­nifer Ehle), usu­ally known as Vin­nie, a placid woman who sees the best in ev­ery­one but who fre­quently chides her sis­ter for her in­flex­i­bil­ity and rude­ness. Their brother, Austin (Dun­can Duff), mar­ries Su­san Gil­bert (Jodhi May), who be­comes, in ef­fect, an­other sis­ter for Emily, who is later out­raged when she be­lieves Austin is cheat­ing on her with Ma­bel Todd (Noemie Schel­lens). She also be­comes close to Vryling Buf­fam (Cather­ine Bai­ley), an­other free spirit with a cheer­ful dis­dain for re­li­gion and mas­cu­line dom­i­na­tion. Less pre­dictable is her at­trac­tion to Rev Wadsworth (Eric Loren), a mar­ried cleric who ex­presses ad­mi­ra­tion for her po­etry.

Davies has filled A Quiet Pas­sion with con­ver­sa­tions that take place within the family, or be­tween Emily and her clos­est friends, con­ver­sa­tions rich with al­most Wildean epi­grams and apho­risms. This makes for some amus­ing se­quences, but the mood darkens in the sec­ond half of the film, when it be­comes clear that Emily will not be recog­nised in her life­time. Af­ter the death of her fa­ther she retreats into a self-im­posed seclu­sion, wear­ing only white and treat­ing with dis­dain just about ev­ery­one who tries to con­nect with her. She is also ill (she is di­ag­nosed with the in­cur­able Bright’s dis­ease).

Davies doesn’t shrink from the chal­lenges this dark­ened mood poses for his au­di­ence. Emily is not a fem­i­nist des­tined to tri­umph, like Sy­bylla in My Bril­liant Ca­reer; hers will be a less happy des­tiny. As a re­sult some may find the film overly grim or de­press­ing. Yet it’s filled with beau­ti­ful se­quences and touch­ing mo­ments, such as one where Emily’s mother, lis­ten­ing to the hymn Abide with Me, re­mem­bers a boy she knew as a girl who sang the same hymn and who died at the age of 19. Mo­ments like this en­rich Davies’s aus­terely beau­ti­ful film. Coolgardie is a small town west of Kal­go­or­lie, Western Aus­tralia. There isn’t much there; it’s dry and dusty and not many of the trucks trav­el­ling to and from Perth seem to stop. But the Den­ver City Ho­tel is usu­ally busy; it’s the town’s only wa­ter­ing hole and, for many, it’s the so­cial cen­tre of the com­mu­nity.

Pete Glee­son’s re­mark­able fly-on-the-wall doc­u­men­tary, Ho­tel Coolgardie, fol­lows the for­tunes, or rather mis­for­tunes, of a cou­ple of girls from Fin­land who ob­tain a job work­ing be- Quiet Pas­sion; Coolgardie; Ho­tel Kedi hind the bar in the ho­tel. Peter, the ho­tel man­ager, hires new bar­maids ev­ery three months via an agency in Perth, and when Lina and Steph ar­rive in town they’re wel­comed by some of the ho­tel’s cus­tomers as “fresh meat”. Their pre­de­ces­sors haven’t left yet, but they don’t seem to be much help to the hap­less Finns who, though they speak good English, have trou­ble un­der­stand­ing the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar.

Glee­son’s cam­era films the girls on and off duty (they live in ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tion above the bar) and what emerges is a chill­ingly nasty out­back story to ri­val Wake in Fright. Not that the Finns are vic­tims; they seem ca­pa­ble of look­ing af­ter them­selves, but they have to en­dure some pretty in­tim­i­dat­ing com­men­tary from their boss and the ho­tel’s fre­quently drunken clien­tele. The most sym­pa­thetic man around is old Can­man, but his life­style is noth­ing to write home about — his dog sleeps, eats and defe­cates in his car, so that when he gives the girls a ride Steph is so over­come by the stench she be­comes vi­o­lently ill. As it turns out, Lina’s health is far more prob­lem­atic: a di­a­betic, she’s con­stantly urged by her mother (whom she phones reg­u­larly) to have her sugar lev­els checked, but she never gets round to it, with se­ri­ous con­se­quences.

The in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Lina and Steph and the lo­cals of Coolgardie make for a sur­pris­ingly riv­et­ing drama that could al­most have been scripted. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary that events such as those de­picted oc­curred, un­scripted, in front of Glee­son’s cam­era — and per­haps even more ex­tra­or­di­nary that he was given per­mis­sion to show these peo­ple on screen. Kedi is also a doc­u­men­tary, but noth­ing at all like the MA-rated go­ings-on in Ho­tel Coolgardie. The ti­tle is Turk­ish for cat, and this simple but most at­trac­tive film aims at noth­ing more than in­tro­duc­ing us to some of the home­less fe­lines that roam the streets and dock­yards of the beau­ti­ful city of Istanbul.

Di­rected by Ceyda Torun, the film gets up­close-and-per­sonal with nu­mer­ous re­source­ful cats and the shop­keep­ers, street clean­ers, boat­men and other lo­cals who feed them. At times the cam­era glides along streets and al­leys at the same level as the cats, at oth­ers it soars over the mag­nif­i­cent vis­tas of Turkey’s largest city. There’s no more to it than that, but an at­trac­tive mu­sic score, in­cor­po­rat­ing sev­eral Turk­ish songs, makes for an en­gag­ing film that’s easy on the eye and the ear — es­pe­cially for cat and/or Istanbul lovers.

Cyn­thia Nixon and Jen­nifer Ehle in A Lina, one of the bar staff in a fe­line star of

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