Lyrical overview of a poet’s life
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