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2016 London Film Festival Review: A Quiet Passion

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A Quiet Passion begins with a delightful opener that introduces us to the bold and soulful poet, Emily Dickinson. We meet her family, see how much she holds them dear, and are introduced to the many things which are expected of her. Sadly, this opener is over all too quickly. The film quickly goes from delightful and witty banter to a pit of despair and misery from which there is no escape.

As Emily becomes more of a recluse, so does the film. And pretty soon it is as suffocating as whatever melancholy has consumed her. There are plenty of films about sadness, loss and depression but this one is somehow so stilted as to lose all connection with the characters on screen. There are short-lived reprieves when the viewer is treated to a scene between Emily (Cynthia Dixon) and her sister, Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), but even those moments are not enough to lift the viewer out of a frustrating disconnect. Though it’s not for a lack of trying on their part.

Director Terence Davies’ love for ‘interesting’ camera angles means that the focus is all wrong. The lens frequently drifts around a room at such a glacial pace that you will it to hurry up; there are shots focussing on flowers and others that are so intrusive as to make you lose the context and start to focus on facial features. (When an actor is giving a heartfelt speech, the focus should not be on their teeth, or the way their mouth moves, simply because that is all you can focus on!) It’s distracting from the story, not enhancing – much like the muddled American accents used by many of the British cast members in this very American story.

What this odd focus means, of course, is that not enough focus is given to actually exploring the characters. This is all the more infuriating because these are not simply characters but real people – and one of them, especially, is held in tremendous esteem by lovers of poetry the world over. She deserved better, and so did Cynthia Nixon who puts in a tremendous, emotional and gut-wrenching performance.

2-out-of-5

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One Comment

  1. I completely disagree with you in your review of this film. I thought it was beautiful, deeply moving and quite unexpectedly funny. The whole point of it is that it’s not a meat and potatoes biopic. It uses the poetry of the camera to bring out the world of the poet.

    The use of lighting in particular was stunning. It made me feel that i was actually entering into Emily Dickinson’s interior experience of her world. Many of the shots are slow, almost static. That is how Emily in a sense tried to live her life. She tried to freeze it at a point where she felt safe and as the world changed she withdrew from it. Unfortunately for her, she couldn’t stop the world also withdrawing from her as those part of it die or marry or fail to live up to her idealised notions of them.

    I also loved the way the life and the poetry are wrapped round each other in the film. And Cynthia Nixon is just extraordinary. She barely needs to speak, her eyes say so much by themselves. She seems to become Emily Dickinson.

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