Originally posted June 1st, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
The thing with being an aspiring critic rather than a professional one is that you are often behind on many films that other writers will have already seen. And when you finally get the chance to see one of those films yourself, you have to reconcile with and recognize the possibility that even just hearing about a consensus one way or the other may influence how you read a production. Nevertheless, many of you who’ve possibly seen the film will be quickly ready to disagree with my position, I’m sure, but I just can’t shake the opinion that Terence Davies’s Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion is one of the most dreadful experiences at the theater I’ll have this year.
The opening suggests the beginnings of a picture quietly burning that Davies will stoke to a raging flame by its denouement, fading in on a group of young women standing attentively to the school master preaching the importance of piety and striving to be saved. She divides the group in two, between those who have been saved and those who wish to be, but this separation of the sea leaves a young Dickinson, here played by Emma Bell, defiantly in social purgatory. Though the exchange between Emily and her school master is heated on the latter’s part, Emily continues to calmly retort with sharp causticity that bites, yet doesn’t sting.
It’s a well-worked opening scene, but my heart sank to my stomach digesting nearly everything else that followed. Though most sequences are often marked by controlled, painterly cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister, subtly bewitching the viewer with a painstakingly meticulous eye for symmetry, it unfortunately captures, and even underscores an excruciatingly stiff portrayal of reality akin to an amateur theatrical production. The writing occasionally plays fast and loose with discomfortingly, if perhaps intentionally rigid dialogue, and yet the staging and actors’ respective deliveries manage to be worse in a similar regard.
Though this overarching approach may feasibly fit inside Davies’s vision, one of unyielding intimacy and equally profound stateliness, it’s painfully ironic given his subject’s standing as a figure just on the outside of traditional thought and conduct. Throughout the first act and the rest of the film’s opening half, A Quiet Passion’s unfortunate defining trait is its propensity for fleeting moments that might suggest less constricted travelling, but ultimately lead to more of the same. Every now and then, a single line delivered, or even a whole scene from Cynthia Nixon’s Dickinson is comparatively less confined to Davies’s direction, as well as the screenplay’s infrequent moments of Dickinson’s beautifully rendered poetry narrated over contemplative silence.
But if the film’s former half is mostly agonizing with passing seconds of promise, then the latter is just as tiresome with even more examples of self-serving tedium. It’s during this overlong, repetitive portion that Emily’s tongue grows most lashing towards family and strangers alike as Davies tries to haphazardly ratchet up the drama and mood the closer we come to the inevitable conclusion about a writer whose works weren’t fully appreciated until posthumously so. Seconds plod slowly by as Emily’s rapier wit wearily entertains just as it weakens the resolve to press forth, and even a few readings of her stunning prose become too on the nose to stomach.
Davies’s film is so bizarrely impressed with itself that its overall identity is exactly how every one of Dickinson’s detractors might have viewed her seemingly cold-hearted disposition. It’s fine, even fantastic to make and financially back a timely film regarding themes of generational gaps in normative thought, especially related to patriarchal norms and how a proper Christian woman conducts herself, but basic ideological goodness doesn’t distract from fundamentally flawed directorial intent that comes across more self-congratulatory than thoughtful. The relief felt upon the end credits’ arrival is both depressing and intoxicating, as I could hardly believe witnessing such a bewildering misfire.
Simply put, A Quiet Passion is soulless to its very core, and realized wish-fulfillment would see this project relegated back to development hell where some other filmmaker might give the material a more lively, impactful resonance. Two hours of carefully, statically constructed staginess can only amount to punishing boredom the likes of which I had yet to see this calendar year. I didn’t want to stop for a film that would unsuspectedly breach my bottom five for 2017; it cruelly stopped for me.