A Quiet Passion
dir-scr Terence Davies
prd Roy Boulter, Sol Papadopoulos
with Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff, Keith Carradine, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Rose Williams, Benjamin Wainwright, Annette Badland, Noemie Schellens
release UK 7.Apr.17, US 14.Apr.17
16/UK 2h05
A Quiet Passion
Smart sisters: Nixon and Ehle

carradine may davies
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
A Quiet Passion This Emily Dickinson biopic may feel dry and morose, but it's gorgeously shot and acted with surprising wit. Writer-director Terence Davies invests every scene with earthy emotion and sparkling intelligence, plus a yearning for truth that's remarkably engaging. But it moves at a near-silent pace that reflects the repressed feelings of a time and place marked by the "literature of misery".

In 1840s Massachusetts, no one quite knows what to do with the deep-thinking Emily (Bell, then Nixon), who expresses her faith in ways that horrify her strict teachers. Her parents (Carradine and Bacon) raised her and her siblings Vinnie and Austin (Williams and Wainwright, then Ehle and Duff) to think for themselves. And they're proud that Emily is getting her poems published, even anonymously. Over the years, Emily refuses to accept the decorative role of women in society, alienating most people she meets and only publishing a handful of poems during her life.

As it traverses the decades, the film is punctuated with Emily's exquisite poetry, while Davies' unfussy production style nicely captures the period with disarmingly realism. Every conversation is infused with religiosity, which is cleverly depicted as reflexive rather than meaningful. So when the open-minded Emily and Vinnie meet a plain-speaking newcomer (Bailey), they're delighted. Larger events like the Civil War inventively combine colourised historical photographs with topical discussions and personal impact. On the other hand, the string of illnesses and conflicts becomes somewhat exhausting.

Performances are internalised, with tiny flickers of movement expressing what larger gestures can't. Nixon brings bright-eyed clarity to her performance, making light work of the dense dialog to convey the not-always-likeable Emily's thoughtful honesty, her obsession with Bronte-style fiction and her revelatory ideas about God and mortality. Ehle is enjoyable as the smiley but never dim Vinnie, while everyone else is rather dour, even as they depict smart, complicated people. May adds an emotional touch as Austin's soft-spoken wife Susan. And each actor brings crackling personality to the wordy conversations.

The delicacy of the script requires close attention from the audience. But it pays off in its provocative wordplay and meaty characters. Emily finds her poems to be "a solace for the eternity that surrounds us all". Yes, the themes are pungent and important, as Emily rejects simplistic faith and piety for something much deeper and far more complex. This is a bracing look at how she confronted the hypocrisy of conformity that place value on people who keep their true thoughts to themselves.

cert 12 themes, disturbing imagery 14.Mar.17

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