The pre­ma­ture burial

Business World - - WEEKENDER - By Noel Vera

IF YOU AT­TEMPT some­thing of­ten enough once in a while you’ll get it right. The biopic has been done so of­ten in re­cent years some­one had to hit the bulls­eye some­time, not so much telling a sub­ject’s story with rea­son­able ac­cu­racy as us­ing said sub­ject’s life as grist to ex­press the film­maker’s ob­ses­sions on his own stylis­tic terms — I’m think­ing of Wong Kar Wai’s The

Grand­mas­ter as lush and nar­ra­tively way­ward as any of his other works or Jane Cam­pion’s

Bright Star with its aus­tere beauty and fo­cus on the fe­male pro­tag­o­nist (John Keat’s great love Fanny Brawne). Ter­ence Davies’

A Quiet Pas­sion does some­thing as in­ter­est­ing if not more so: cast Emily Dickinson — one of Amer­ica’s great­est po­ets — in what is ba­si­cally a hor­ror film.

Davies opens the film with Emily ( Emma Bell) al­ready in ef­fect buried alive, not just in 19th cen­tury New Eng­land ( where men dis­ap­prove of women singing on­stage) but in Mount Holyoke Fe­male Sem­i­nary, where she must take up among other sub­jects “ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal his­tory.” Stand­ing by her­self to one side of a spar­ely dec­o­rated room she stands de­fi­ant against head­mistress Miss Lyons (Sara Ver­ton­gen) who de­mands of her: “Have you said your prayers?” His­tor­i­cally there are sev­eral ex­pla­na­tions for Emily leav­ing ( sick­ness, home­sick­ness, fa­ther wanted her home) but Davies tellingly opts for re­bel­lion against “an acute case of evan­ge­lism.”

Emily in this first half (Cyn­thia Nixon as an adult) is a live wire, speak­ing out against piety (“What of hell?” “Avoid it if I can; en­dure it if I must”) and pro­pri­ety (“She has led a blame­less life.” “She hasn’t led a life at all!”), rail­ing along the way on the sub­ject of slav­ery (“which should never have flour­ished in this coun­try in the first place”) and sex­ism (“live as a woman for a week... you will find it nei­ther con­ge­nial nor triv­ial”). Add a crip­pling dis­abil­ity ( Bright’s Dis­ease, an old-fash­ioned term for a va­ri­ety of kid­ney con­di­tions) and what may have been de­pres­sion if not se­vere ago­ra­pho­bia and you might say she’s led a full life of sorts.

But those are the easy tar­gets, the ob­vi­ous tar­gets, stan­dard­is­sue in any fem­i­nist film; to Davies’ mind Emily goes fur­ther, con­demn­ing her brother Austin’s (Dun­can Duff ) ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair ( de­spite hav­ing pined for the mar­ried Rev­erend Wadsworth [ Eric Loren] her­self ear­lier), rant­ing against the poor hand God has dealt her ap­pear­ance-wise (“The only peo­ple who can be san­guine about not be­ing hand­some are those who are beau­ti­ful al­ready”), ul­ti­mately pun­ish­ing the world the same way she pun­ished the head­mistress back at Mount Holyoke, with in­tractable de­fi­ance — this time stand­ing alone within the walls of her room.

Davies’ tac­tic is more than de­lib­er­ate, giv­ing us what feels at first glance like a Whit Still­man pe­riod adap­ta­tion ( Love &

Friend­ship any­one?) com­plete with arch wit­ti­cisms and pithy come­backs (which, judg­ing from the sur­viv­ing let­ters out of the many thou­sands she wrote, Emily was per­fectly ca­pa­ble of craft­ing) show­ing us what a funny in­de­pen­dent spir­ited soul she is. And then — not long after the death of her fa­ther (re­splen­dent in black, laid out in a mas­sive cof­fin that stretches across the screen) — dress­ing her in white and hav­ing her spend the rest of her rel­a­tively brief life sealed off in the up­per floors of the Home­stead, the fam­ily’s Amherst, MA man­sion.

Then there are the po­ems. Emily’s seem suited to the big screen: some­what short and eas­ily re­cited in one- to twominute in­cre­ments they ( as Nixon re­cites them) have a lively en­gag­ing ca­dence, not un­like a chil­dren’s rhyme. But what of the mys­ti­cism? What about the meta­phys­i­cal long­ings? Davies’ vis­ual style is exquisitely suited to ex­press­ing this side of Emily’s poetry, an­chor­ing us in chastely sen­su­ous im­ages of the here and now ( the gleam­ing wood, the rich tex­tiles, the flick­ing warmth of can­dle­light) at the same time look­ing beyond the trap­pings at the out­lines of the at times dark and for­bid­ding God glimpsed at in her verses.

“Be­cause I could not stop for Death” is an ob­vi­ous choice for Emily’s pass­ing but Davies takes a page from Dreyer and re­al­izes the burial as a serene glid­ing jour­ney to her fi­nal rest­ing place ( the last few verses — “since then — tis Cen­turies —” sug­gest­ing a chill­ingly long view of time’s pas­sage as we peer down the deep hole in the ground). “I’m No­body! Who are you?” the clas­sic out­sider’s an­them, shows Emily cast­ing al­le­giance with Austin’s new­born child (they’re both out­siders hence in­stant good friends).

But Davies re­serves his most rap­tur­ous — and most ter­ri­fy­ing — pas­sage not for a Dickinson poem but for a sen­ti­ment ap­par­ently ex­trap­o­lated from her po­ems: “He will mount the stairs at mid­night,” ac­tress Nixon in­tones as Davies shows us the door — partly lit by sun­light — to Emily’s room. Nixon’s voice grows dis­tressed as day wanes and the light slips away; as shad­ows gather her voice chokes as she cries out: “O please let him come! Let him not for­get me!” A lit­tle too on-the-nose for Dickinson but as a cri de coeur fash­ioned for the film it’s an un­for­get­table mo­ment: sud­denly the shad­ows about the door­way take on a mor­tal as­pect and the door’s (L) white wood re­sem­bles the cover of a cas­ket, freshly ham­mered shut. Sud­denly our hearts are in there with Emily, and we need to pause to re­cover our senses. Avail­able on DVD.

CYN­THIA NIXON as Emily Dickinson and Jen­nifer Ehle as Vin­nie Dickinson in A Quiet Pas­sion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Philippines

© PressReader. All rights reserved.