Richard and CP24 anchor Stephanie Smythe have a look at the weekend’s new movies, the redonkulous new “Fast & Furious” entry from Vin Diesel and Company, “The Fate of the Furious,” the family drama “Gifted,” the romantic biopic “Maudie” starring Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke and the bizzaro “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea”!
“Success is counted sweetest, By those who ne’er succeed,” wrote Emily Dickenson in one of the seven poems she published during her lifetime. Those lines must have played on the minds of the filmmakers behind A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the reclusive nineteenth century poet, who suffered setback after setback while bringing the story to the screen.
Five years after being offered the role Cynthia Nixon said, “I never thought it would come together. I thought, ‘Thank you for thinking of me, it is a good part for me but I don’t see how you are going to get this made.’”
The former Sex and the City star often thought about the project but claims she was never impatient at the film’s lack of progress.
“I started acting as a twelve year old and I went to a very tough school and what that taught me was that when I was up for a job that I really wanted and I didn’t get, I would think to myself, ‘At least I don’t have to do double duty. I don’t have to do school and work.’ Now I have three children and am married. I run a household so when I am not working I feel it less than other people.
“If you are in something for the long haul you are not constantly taking its temperature.”
It took years but Nixon and director Terence Davies succeeded in telling Dickenson’s story, bringing to cinematic life not only the facts—she was reclusive and never married—but also the essence of a person with an insatiable need to question societal norms.
“The questions she is asking as a person and as a woman,” says Nixon, “they are big questions. How do I deal with all this love I feel? What does it mean to be intimate with another person? Will I lose myself and do I want to lose myself? I think she was so ahead of her time in thinking these things were an option, like whether she would marry or not. For her that was a question. It wasn’t like she was dying to get married and didn’t. She chose not to. Whether she was going to be a mother or not. These are questions that women today deal with as a matter of course but most nineteenth century women would not have even stopped to consider.”
Nixon says Dickenson’s ideas and words have been a constant in her life. “We had a record at home of Julie Harris reading some of the poems and the letters. I would listen to them again and again so some of the better-known poems and letters I learned by heart.”
Dickenson died 130 years ago but Nixon feels there are timely elements in A Quiet Passion for today’s audiences.
“If you think about the mid nineteenth century in America and you think about the issues we were dealing with in terms of women, it is a straight line from there to here. We’ve obviously come very far but it is exactly the same issues. Are women going to be treated equally? She saw the jump between the way things are supposed to be and the way things are, and she didn’t try to wallpaper over anything.”
“A Quiet Passion” avoids the two major pitfalls of most poetry movies, it neither seeks to ponder the creative process or glamourize the poet’s excesses and rakish behaviour. Instead, this is a modest movie that focuses on Emily Dickenson’s reclusive existence; giving us insight into the personality published just seven poems in her lifetime.
Set in nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts, at the start Emma Bell plays Dickenson as an unconventional young woman who leaves her women’s college because she, “will not be forced to piety.” Later “Sex and the City’s” Cynthia Nixon takes over the role as the poet matures into a fiercely opinionated and vivacious woman who lives with her father (Keith Carradine), mother (Joanna Bacon), brother (Duncan Duff) and sister (Jennifer Ehle). Unlike most dour representations of Dickenson, Nixon plays her as an intense, intuitive person bursting at the seams with ideas. Despite the strict morays of the time—she had to ask her father for permission to write—she would stay in that tightly knit family unit her entire life, soaking up the inspiration that fed the nearly 2000 poems she wrote but (mostly) never published. Writing poetry by hurricane lamp, calling it, “my solace for the eternity that surrounds us all,” she pours a life ripe with bereavement and disappointment onto the pages.
There’s not a lot of action in “A Quiet Passion.” It is primarily housebound, as Emily withdraws from the outside world, surrounding herself with those she knows and trusts best. It is, I suppose, a good way to visualize her growing sense of societal alienation but it makes for a film that often feels closed in, claustrophobic.
Luckily there is nothing stodgy about the performances. Nixon leads the cast, breathing life into a character who retreated from the world, expressing her joy and pain in the written word. She makes the mannered dialogue seem natural, bringing an ease to the conversation and societal structures. It’s a lovely performance, one that transcends the film’s archness and artifice.
There is poetry in “A Quiet Passion.” Perhaps not enough of actual poetry for Dickenson purists—it’s mostly heard in voiceover—but a cinematic poetry from director Terence Davies who has visualized one woman’s intimate connection with words.