Well, I did it again! Saw two movies this weekend: one good, one dreadful… The good one is “A Quiet Passion,” a beautifully mounted biography of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson. The dreadful one is “The Leveller,” a bleak English drama that is both tedious and unfathomable.
Let’s start with the good one. “A Quiet Passion”, written and directed by British screenwriter Terence Davies, stars Cynthia Nixon, who is made up so skillfully to look like Emily Dickinson that I didn’t recognize her. Remembering Nixon as one of the four sexpots in the TV series “Sex and the City”, it was mind-boggling to see her as the introverted, reclusive and eccentric Dickinson. Nixon is extraordinary in the role.
Born in 1830 in Southampton, Massachusetts, Dickinson spent her entire life there surrounded by family: her sister Lavinia (Jennifer Ehle), her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), her dour mother (Joanna Bacon), and her domineering father (Keith Carradine). It was a large, comfortable home, but it became almost claustrophobic as the camera panned slowly around the rooms to suggest how it would feel to isolate yourself in them for 55 years.
Dickinson considered herself unattractive, with a small receding chin and an excessively long neck (and I don’t know how the attractive Nixon managed that!), and as a young woman she was feisty and opinionated. Sent off to a seminary for her education, she rebelled against the nuns who tried to force her to accept the stringent tenets of Christianity in order to be “Saved.” When she returned home she confided to her parents that the nuns considered her a “no-hoper” and that she was suffering from “an acute case of evangelism.”
She and her sister never married and as she got older she grew impatient and embittered and more and more strange. Her poems, however, provided her with an outlet for expressing her emotions and her obsessions with death and immortality and the possibility of God, although she came to believe that “posterity is as comfortless as God” and that “if God does not exist, then I will be eternally free.” Documenting these aesthetic concerns, the film provides a lavish selection of her innovative poems rendered in soft voice-over.
Even as a recluse she maintained a relationship with a small circle of friends, and a few men whom she regarded as mentors, by corresponding with them frequently. But if any came to visit she wouldn’t appear; she would talk to them from the top of the stairs, concealed behind her bedroom door.
By the time of her death in 1886 from kidney disease she had had only a few poems published, but her sister Lavinia persisted until she got nearly 1800 of Emily’s poems published posthumously — the first ones in 1890. Always in print since then and continually subject to critical analysis, Dickinson In the 20th century finally became recognized and respected by a newer generation as an early avatar of feminism.
This slow, moody biography is filled with fascinating and colorful secondary characters who contribute to making this film a Must See for would-be artists and poets, as well as lovers of 19th century British costume dramas.
“A Quiet Passion” was released at the end of March and is currently playing at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Los Angeles.
My second film of the weekend, “The Levelling”, is a truly ugly film set on a depressingly mud-soaked English farm. The farm has endured a flooding by the swollen river nearby, and the daughter (Ellie Kendrick) of the unappealing owner has returned to help out after an absence of many years. She is barely acknowledged by her taciturn father and mainly ignored by everyone else. Further, her brief comments are delivered at such a pace that they are almost entirely incomprehensible. In addition, the other players are burdened with accents that make their dialogue almost incomprehensible as well.
Perhaps subtitles might have helped, but then, after just a few minutes of this dreary movie one is too enervated to grapple with subtitles.
The plot bumbles along, sometimes with puzzling insertions that the writer/director, Hope Dickson Leach, must have imagined would add pith and a touch of fantasy to the proceedings. For example, why did the film open with a group of young men dancing fully naked around a crackling fire? At the end of the scene they vanished and were never heard from or referred to again.
And who, or what, were the two unidentified things swimming or being swept downriver in the middle of the night?
An additional hiccup in the plot was that the farmer had just passed the farm on to his son, who promptly committed suicide. Which is probably the only thing in the film that makes much sense, because if you had inherited a farm as dilapidated as this one you’d probably want to shoot yourself too.
And please don’t ask what the title means. I haven’t a clue.
“The Levelling” is currently on-screen at Laemmle’s Music Hall in L.A. and will probably show up soon at other Laemmle theaters.