Lively girl to thun­der­ing wagon

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

A QUIET PAS­SION Di­rected by Ter­ence Davies. Star­ring Cyn­thia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Car­ra­dine, Cather­ine Bai­ley, Jodhi May, Emma Bell, Dun­can Duff, Club, IFI, Dublin, QFT, Belfast, 125mins What was the deal with Emily Dick­in­son? Amer­ica’s ear­li­est known proto-emo pic­tured death as a gen­tle­man caller, may have loved a girl named Su­san, nursed a “ter­ror” she “could tell to none”, ex­clu­sively wore white, spoke only to her sis­ter, and – hav­ing been born too early to find some so­lace in the sounds of Pvris – hated the only known da­guerreo­type of her­self. If any­one can dis­en­tan­gle the elu­sive Dick­in­son, then surely it’s di­rec­tor Ter­ence Davies ( The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth), an­other gifted poet of lone­li­ness. Davies’ Dick­in­son – es­sayed as a pressure cooker by Sex and the City’s Cyn­thia Nixon – turns out to be his most mis­er­able cre­ation. Where the same film-maker found pathos in the ru­ina­tions of Lily Bart ( The House of Mirth) and Hester Col­lyer ( The Deep Blue Sea), the hero­ine of A Quiet Pas­sion barely deems to step out­side her own head, let alone her own home. (Watch­ing this UK-Bel­ga­ian co-pro­duc­tion’s cheap-as-chips take on the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg, this may be for the best.)

Ev­ery­thing in the film – Flo­rian Hoffmeis­ter’s boxed cin­e­matog­ra­phy, Toon Marien and Katha Sei­d­man’s heav­ily draped sets, Cather­ine Marchand’s deep-breath corsets – con­spires to ar­tic­u­late the cramped con­di­tions of 19th­cen­tury spin­ster­hood.

Dick­in­son both re­sents and ad­heres to this pre­scribed ex­is­tence. We’re in­tro­duced to her as an in­con­gru­ously lively girl (Emma Bell) who grows up to be a para­sol-twirling wit, trad­ing repar­tee and fan snaps with BFF Vryling (Cather­ine Bai­ley). This rein­ven­tion of the poet as a Whit Still­man char­ac­ter is fun, but as un­con­vinc­ing as it is short-lived. Once Vryling is mar­ried, Dick­in­son is left to un­sym­pa­thetic father (Keith Car­ra­dine), bul­ly­ing brother Austin (Dun­can Duff), and dot­ing younger sis­ter (Jennifer Ehle, brim­ming with pathos).

His­tory records that Austin’s mis­tress, Ma­bel Todd, was a cham­pion of Dick­in­son’s po­ems: here she is a source of jeal­ousy and sex­ual frus­tra­tion. Long be­fore she takes to bed with the Bright’s disease that would kill her in 1886, this Dick­in­son – an in­creas­ingly bit­ter old maid and a thun­der­ing wagon to boot – is sel­dom fun to be around.

Davies works Dick­in­son’s poetry into the script, re­sult­ing in vi­o­lently bipo­lar shifts in mood and overly man­nered di­a­logue. The writ­ing is here, but the au­thor is much harder to pin­point.

Cyn­thia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle in A Quiet Pas­sion

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