Tag Archives: B+

A QUIET PASSION

Producer: Roy Boulter and Solon Papadopoulos
Director: Terence Davies
Writer: Terence Davies
Stars: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Catherine Bailey, Jodhi May, Emma Bell, Duncan Duff, Joanna Bacon, Eric Loren, Annette Badland, Noemie Schellens, Benjamin Wainwright, Rose Williams, Stefan Menaul and Simone Mildsdochter
Studio: Music Box Films

B+

Terence Davies brings his peculiarly poetic cinematic sensibility to the life of poetess Emily Dickinson in “A Quiet Passion,” a film that, as the title suggests, simmers intently beneath a veneer of cool propriety, just as its subject herself did. Though it occasionally shows the effect of budgetary limitations, like its immediate predecessor “Sunset Song” it represents a richly textured expression of its maker’s distinctive voice, in the processing capturing Dickinson’s as well.

The film will undoubtedly strike some viewers as mannered and overly deliberate, but to criticize it for those qualities means dismissing Davies’ characteristic style. These are the means by which he sought to portray the experience of his own early life in “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” as well as the essence of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” The technique hasn’t always worked to the benefit of the material, but here it links the filmmaker—who obviously worked closely with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister and editor Pia Di Ciaula to fashion the measured yet subtly lyrical rhythm—with his subject, both of them sharing a proclivity to create their work in a hothouse, closed-in environment and to speak, in their respective media, in a form that is elevated, often obscure but always deeply felt.

Davies’ film is, strictly speaking, biographical—it begins with Dickinson’s virtual expulsion from Mount Holyoke for her unorthodox religious views and her return to her father’s house in Amherst—in these early scenes she’s played by Emma Bell—and continues through the years during which she declined to leave the grounds until her death in 1886 at age 56. With Cynthia Nixon now assuming the role, it then portrays Emily’s relationships with her father Edward (Keith Carradine), mother Norcross (Joanna Bacon), brother Austin, initially Benjamin Wainwright, later Duncan Duff) and sister Lavinia (Rose Williams, then Jennifer Ehle). In that connection it portrays Emily’s deep consciousness of loss as first her mother and then her father die, and her rage over her brother’s affair, which she rightly sees as a sign of disrespect to her sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May).

While the typically restricting family background of the time and place—as well as the national tragedy of the Civil War unfolding around her (the grim mood of which is handled in virtual shorthand through a montage of contemporary photographs)—provide the dominant atmosphere, however, Dickinson’s sense of bemusement over the shallowness of the prim morality espoused by people like her rigid aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland) is employed to puncture it. It’s here that Davies takes his greatest liberty with the historical record, elevating Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend of Lavinia’s, into an aphorism-spouting figure who might have stepped out of a play by Oscar Wilde. Emily shares deliciously rapier conversations with her—until Buffam goes off to be married, the ultimate sort-of escape that Dickinson herself never experienced.

The core of the film, however, is necessarily Dickinson’s verse, which is clearly her passion from the very first. Upon her return home she asks Edward’s permission to write during hours when her doing so won’t bother the rest of the family, and he agrees to the request—something she notes was unusual for the mores of the time against which she (and he) were quietly rebelling. Davies cannot explain in any simplistic fashion her drive to write, and doesn’t spend much time showing her do it, but he does offer a taste of the result in voiceover excerpts periodically read by Nixon. He also epitomizes the unresponsive attitude to her poems while she lived in the obtuseness of the man who published the few poems of hers that appeared during her lifetime, but never appreciated their uniqueness.

That theme, combined with Emily’s suppressed longing for love as well as recognition, colors the other major subplot of the film—her relationship with Charles Wadsworth (Eric Loren), the new pastor. He proves to be the sole figure to perceive the genius in Dickinson’s poems, and if life imitated Jane Austen he would have been her natural soul mate, but he is already married, to Jane (Simone Milsdochter), a perpetually sour woman who’s apparently devoted to the avoidance of all pleasure that is not strictly spiritual. When Wadsworth departs Amherst, it is a crushing blow, soon followed by Emily’s removal from the larger world—just another loss she must endure in the long journey through solitude and illness to death—and, paradoxically, posthumous fame.

“A Quiet Passion” is Davies’ work above all, a product of his singular vision (and, one might suggest, his own reclusive method), but of course he could not have realized it without able collaborators. Hoffmeister and Di Ciaula’s contributions have already been noted, but one must also mention the work of production designer Merjin Sep, art director Toon Merien, set decorator Katha Seidman and costume designer Catherine Marchand, who manage a convincing period ambience on what was obviously a modest budget, as even the fact that the film was mostly shot outside Antwerp suggests. One must even applaud the visual effects supervised by Herman Germeijs, particularly the simple but effective means by which the transformation of the characters as they age and are taken up by new actors is accomplished.

Expert performances are also essential, of course, and Nixon delivers a powerfully compelling one which—as applies to all the actors—involves, among other things, presenting Davies’ deliberately arch dialogue, very much of the period, as though it were the most natural mode of expression in the world. The others—Ehle, Carradine, Bacon, Duff, May and Loren in particular—follow suit; they come across as stiff, but in their hands the demeanor seems a true reflection of the time. The only exception in that regard is Bailey, who appears always to be putting on an act—which is doubtlessly the whole idea with Buffam, but is nonetheless somewhat distracting.

The lives of nineteenth-century writers have often been romanticized on the screen for emotional effect. What’s remarkable about “A Quiet Passion”—and this is something that it shares with Sally Wainwright’s recent BBC telefilm “To Walk Invisible” about the Bronte sisters (whose work Davies has Dickinson praise), though stylistically it took a very different approach—is that it refuses to do so. Perhaps it’s Davies’ status as a cinematic outsider that allowed him to perceive, and capture, the life of a poetic outsider so well.

THEIR FINEST

Producer: Finola Dwyer, Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woodley and Amanda Posey
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writer: Gaby Chiappe
Stars: Gemma Artertin, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Helen McCrory, Jack Huston, Jake Lacy, Richard E. Grant, Rachel Stirling, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Jeremy Irons, Claudia Jessie, Stephanie Hyam and Eddie Marsan
Studio: STX Entertainment

B+

With a title that’s a shortened version of one of Winston Churchill’s most famous rhetorical flourishes (so memorable that he reused it on the spine of a volume in his massive history of World War II), you might expect “Their Finest” to be a typically stiff-upper-lip paean to British pluck during the Blitz. There is some of that spirit in the film, to be sure, but the surprise of Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of Lissa Evans’ novel is that it deftly balances humor and drama to fashion a picture of life under wartime stress that’s both richly funny and occasionally quite moving. But there’s more: the picture is both a heartfelt homage to, and a cheeky send-up of, the British filmmaking of the period, as well as a tale of women on the rise in society. A lot is going on in the “Their Finest,” and the fact that it juggles all of it so well is evidence of the skill of the director of “Italian for Beginners” and “An Education.”

The linchpin of the narrative is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a young Welsh secretary looking for a job in the summer of 1940, as German bombs are falling on London. Applying at the Ministry of Information’s film division, which makes short morale-boosting informational pieces to play before features in theatres, she’s not only hired but, since she has experience in copywriting, is assigned by her boss Roger Swain (Richard E. Grant) to the writers’ room alongside two male veterans of the trade, supercilious Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and mellow Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), who work under the stern eye of office manager Phyl (Rachael Stirling). Catrin’s function will be to come up with what’s referred to dismissively as slop—the inane dialogue penned for female characters. Catrin is happy to land the job, despite the fact that—as Swain says matter-of-factly—she’ll naturally be making less than the men. But any salary will help her support her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a painter injured during the Spanish civil war whose work is deemed too gloomy for War Office use.

She’s also buoyed by a special assignment—to interview twin sisters Rose and Lily Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight), who, according to news reports, took their father’s boat across the channel to Dunkirk as part of the effort to rescue soldiers stranded on the beach there. Their inspirational tale, it’s believed, might provide fodder for a movie, but reports of their exploit prove wildly exaggerated. Catrin pitches it nonetheless, and Buckley persuades Swain that fidelity to truth is less important than dramatic punch; besides, Tom’s former employer, producer Gabriel Baker (Henry Goodman), who’s anxious to use his skill to promote the war effort, embraces it wholeheartedly.

The actual making of the movie provides the backdrop for the remainder of “Their Finest,” with amusing details about thrashing out a script and the cheesy special effects. But the most important element involves casting—not so much of the supposed stars, who are photogenic but bland, but of the supporting players. One of them is Carl Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a hunky American pilot who’s abruptly written into the plot—despite a singular lack of acting talent—at the urging of the Minister of War (a delicious cameo by Jeremy Irons), a frustrated actor who believes the appealing to the U.S. audience might induce the Yanks to abandon their neutrality and join the conflict.

That’s a plot thread that yields a few pleasant moments, but far more are provided by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), a washed-up actor hired to play the heroic girls’ boozy old uncle. Painting a perfect portrait of a has-been unable to give up the pretense of being a matinee idol, Nighy embodies a man who believes the whole world should revolve around him, yet brings an underlying vulnerability to the character as well. In the process he steals every scene he’s in—including those with his agent Sammy Smith (Eddie Marsan) and Sammy’s hard-nosed sister Sophie (Helen McCrory), both excellent. One might be tempted to say that he does so effortlessly, but that wouldn’t be accurate, since one can see Nighy using every actor’s trick in the book to bring Hilliard to life; but the result approaches something like perfection. (A pity he and Irons don’t have a scene together.)

That’s not to say, however, that Arterton and Claflin are thrown completely into the shade. She brings warmth and strength to the part of a woman emerging from her shell, and he demolishes the image of the handsome stud from “The Hunger Games” with his turn as an undernourished, bespectacled cynic who gradually warms romantically to his office-mate, though he must struggle to overcome his outmoded sense of male superiority. As Catrin and Tom grow closer, of course, she must deal with Ellis, and this is the one aspect of the story that doesn’t come off; the relationship never feels convincing in the first place, but the means of resolving Catrin’s ambivalence has a rote quality. The filmmakers redeem themselves, however, with a twist that most viewers won’t see coming (and many will deplore). Like an earlier turn involving Sammy and Hilliard, however, it serves the salutary function of reminding audiences that all was not sweetness and light at a historical moment when things could change very quickly, and very brutally.

“Their Finest” makes do on a modest budget, and though that sometimes shows (the sequences of devastation as bombs rain down on the streets are small-scaled), overall the film looks fine, with nifty period detail provided by production designer Alice Normington and costumer Charlotte Walter and expert widescreen cinematography by Sebastian Blenkov; and while Rachel Portman’s score is occasionally overbearing, it fits with the film’s traditional visual style.

With a rich vein of comedy and romance in the midst of tragedy, an undercurrent of feminism and an overwhelming love of filmmaking itself, Scherfig’s movie touches many bases with remarkable dexterity, providing ample opportunity for a superb ensemble cast to shine along the way. The titular adjective is not out of place in this instance: this is one of the most sheerly enjoyable movies released thus far this year.