By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Review of A Quiet Passion
Uneasy lies the crown of thorns on a lonesome spinster’s head, and seeing the crown of Emily Dickinson’s strange, reclusive life pass from Julie Harris (The Belle of Amherst) to Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion is a moving transfer. Harris remains great, but there is a chance – as delicate as the almost molecular tension of one thought glancing off another in a Dickinson poem – that Nixon’s Emily is a tad touch greater.
Praise also for director and writer Terence Davies, and photographer Florian Hoffmeister. Perhaps it required the very British Davies (The Long Day Closes) to so totally inhabit the Dickinson home in Amherst, Mass. (exteriors are the real home, interiors were shot in Flanders). Davies is best known for nostalgic but not sappy explorations of his mid-20th century youth in Liverpool, stylized as urgent reveries of memory, of old songs and movies.
His feeling for 19th century New England feels native, rooted in the slowness of clock-tick time, the cherished intimacy of live music, the engulfing, neck-tight clothing, the gentle elisions from window sunlight to flickering candles to glowing lamps. All beautifully filmed. Late at night Emily finds her glory time, writing verse by lamplight while others sleep.
Those others are crucial. Maybe not since Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) have we had a film family this nuclear, concentrated and self-defined. The Dickinsons speak with militant elocution and witty asperity, like Jane Austen dipped in Yankee molasses and vinegar. Their gossiping, pre-media world treats smart opinion as entertainment, but when the scarcely published Emily scorns the popular Longfellow, she is not “funning.”
Sex is so corseted that we can hear its secret buttons popping, in talks that crackle with innuendo. Church religion hovers over people like a cosmic raven – one hazy wing is salvation, the darker, pressing one is death. Intimate with God in her cheeky way, plain Emily (she calls herself “a kangaroo”) enjoys affronting her strict, pious father (Keith Carradine’s eyes, framed by muttonchops, burn). And yet their love is real, at heart profound.
Mostly this is a film of women, almost amber-sealed in a patriarchal world. Vividly present are Emily’s sweetly melancholy mother (Joanna Bacon) and her loyal, sensible sister, Vinnie (superb Jennifer Ehle). Nixon loses some scenes to Catherine Bailey as a visiting, impudent charmer (“I’m irresistible, everyone says so”), a ball of sass like Anne Baxter’s Lucy in The Magnificent Ambersons. Emily’s feminist barbs, wry but bare-knuckled, thrill the more prudent Vinnie. The era’s epic crisis, the Civil War, briefly breaks the family spell. Davies folds it into battle flags and poignant, tinted photos of the dead. This is the second great movie about a poet within months, following Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.
That the film is never museum-bound by daguerreotype decorum and hushed candlelight is largely due to Nixon (Emma Bell is quite fine as young Emily). Wit and wonder, curiosity and longing are in Nixon’s face, aging as family losses multiply and her worsening isolation reveals neurotic envy. Illness (Bright’s disease) is depicted with stunning immediacy. Surely flights of feminine angels sang her to her rest. And her poems still spark, like fireflies, in countless minds.
SALAD (A List)
Twelve Excellent Performances as Famous Writers:
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo, Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Gambler, Ben Gazzara as Serking (Charles Bukowski) in Tales of Ordinary Madness, Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, John Hurt as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in Genius, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Helen Mirren as Rand in The Passion of Ayn Rand, Robert Morley as Wilde in Oscar Wilde, Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, Mary Steenburgen as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek, and Ben Whishaw as John Keats in Bright Star.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Talent-blazing Orson Welles almost caused an RKO soundstage conflagration, while filming the furnace burn of the Rosebud sled for Citizen Kane: “When Orson had nearly exhausted his supply of sleds, the doors swung open and in flew the fire fighters, summoned because an inadequate flue had caused a fire on the roof. When one of the men asked (actor) Paul Stewart who Orson was, and Stewart told him, the fireman replied, ‘It figures!’ – a sarcastic reference to the (1938) Martian radio hoax.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles).
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“The New (Kafka) Normality of Orson Welles’s The Trial echoes Piranesi’s famous prison etchings, with their ‘staircases that lead nowhere, vaults that support nothing but their own weight and enclose vast spaces that are never truly rooms, but only anterooms, lumber rooms, vestibules, outhouses’ (Aldous Huxley). In a ruined chamber, two mute thugs evoke countless Mafia, KGB and Gestapo brutes.” (From the Anthony Perkins/The Trial chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle).
DFSSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Charles Serking (Ben Gazzara) spots his sexy siren (Ornella Muti) in Tales of Ordinary Madness (Italy-U.S., 1981; director Marco Ferreri, cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli).
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