Monday, July 10, 2017

Because I Could Not Stop For Death: Terence Davies' Emily Dickinson

I WAS a bit reluctant at first to choose to see A QUIET PASSION. It might be Terence Davies but it is still essentially a biographical film. How many biographical disaster films have there been? You get put off by all the trite. SBS recently screened the one by Oliver Stone about The Doors. OK, lesson learnt. Terence Davies is not Oliver Stone. But that film was an obscene disaster. It made somebody, who was quite interesting in real life, look like a complete idiot. What is the point of making something that is so disrespectful? If the subject matter, according to Stone, is a complete fool, then he is not worthy of biographical treatment. The same goes for the one they did about Sylvia Plath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Gossipy, scandalous, sensationalist, controversial, shallow, etc, etc.

There are countless others, probably lesser disasters, just misses. Chaplin, Gandhi, Kahlo, Mozart, Monroe, et al.  I’ve seen all of these and been more or less unimpressed about how, in their ‘commercialism’, they have let their subject down.
Terence Davies, though, is a different kettle of fish, as I was reminded of today. A difficult subject, Emily Dickinson. What did she actually do in her life, except for, introspectively, write great, unheralded poetry?

Well, I guess it is worth looking at the New England of its day, the Amherst of the Victorian era. There was the scepticism about God that was the feature of its time. The look at contemporaries, or near contemporaries, the Bronte’s, Elizabeth Gaskell. No mention of Jane Austen. The limited role of women in society, the great questions about the place of women, as writers, but also about wives and being members of society, mothers. The deep unhappiness of Dickinson’s mother and her lack of fulfilment, her own restlessness, and the restlessness of her friends and other members of her family. The impact of the Civil War on America and her consciousness.  These are all the things worthy of consideration, and Davies considers things. It gives him the opportunity to ensure that things don’t become obsessively internal and cloying, that, through Dickinson, we get offered a glimpse of society as well. I don’t, for instance, remember the Plath film doing these things, although Plath was equally preoccupied about the role of women.

Davies wrote the screenplay and directed the film. The film owes its strength to him- and the actress- Cynthia Nixon- a great, great portrayal. She does everything she can. Smiles convincingly, suffers convincingly, shudders convincingly in her fits and becomes convincingly morose but never dull. Davies makes the film glide and engage with beautiful, slow camera movements. It is the music, the spoken poetry that never obtrudes, the slow camera pans, the subtlety of cinematographic composition, the subdued blues and greys, all these things respect their subject matter and offer it a complex recognition. It is all about respect and love, but not really adoration. Davies is not afraid to sugar coat his subject and make her all nobility and grandeur. Yes she suffers, but only as a flawed human being who becomes bloody-minded and depressingly morose, and in a terrible funk. The film implies that she resents being ‘left on the shelf’, resents her lack of beauty and appeal, suffers because of agnostic point of view, resents the lack of recognition as a writer she feels she deserves. In short, that the world owes her something and that she is too maudlin and introspective. This is all great, though. The balance between utmost respect for his subject, but willing to explore her deficiencies as well.

Also the psychic exploration of the need for recognition. The cost of shutting yourself off from society like that. The need to have what little that is yours, validated, by somebody. Emily anxiously peering over towards a critic in her garden setting. Do you like it? Is there something valuable in my world. Is the sacrifice I am making worthwhile? Or is my reason for living generally not worthwhile. I can't help but think of the sisterhood that could have existed here, across the Atlantic, between Emily D and Emily B, and the other Bronte sisters. After all, a reasonable chunk of their lives were lived at the same time.

So, a flawed Emily Dickinson is what we get, which is what was needed- what is absent is the lack of respect and recognition that some of these other films sometimes conjure. Deeply felt respect- where, perhaps, if it was ever possible Dickinson could view herself on film, she might quietly applaud and write an idiosyncratically punctuated poem about it, saying thank you for creating something that is respectful but in its characterisation, flawed and honest at the same time.
The film reminds me, as in the case of the beautiful films that Paul Cox made about Vincent van Gogh and Vaslav Nijinsky- it is best that a poet or a painter make the tribute to another poet or painter if you want something respectful, meaningful, sincere.

Emily Dickinson in unconventional white, which was her practice. Dying in paroxysms of pain like those before her, but with the added grandeur of a noble funeral shown with the moving ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death…’ over the soundtrack.

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