Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a film biography of Emily Dickinson, has opened to mostly laudatory reviews, although it has
received some criticisms for Davies’ inventions about Emily’s life. I also have doubts about Davies’ inventions, though not the ones others have singled out.
Davies begins A Quiet Passion with Emily (played as a girl by Emma Bell) being cast out of Mount Holyoke Seminary for her blasphemies
against the cold Puritan piety of the headmaster (Miles Richardson). The scene conjures up memories of Cordelia and Lear, not to mention Jane Eyre and Mr. Brocklehurst.
It serves both to set the stage for the originality of Emily’s poetry and establish her in the great tradition of literary heroines.
The film continues as the story of Emily’s outwardly placid but inwardly daring life at the Dickinson home in Amherst, ruled by stern but
loving paterfamilias Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine). Davies has a wonderful sequence in which Emily, her sister Lavinia and brother Austin sit for formal photographs and
evolve from teenagers to adults before our eyes. From this point Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff play Emily, Vinnie and Austin.
The first half of A Quiet Passion is filled is joy, light, and roguish humor. There is much to praise at this point: Davies’
direction and screenplay, the photography of Florian Hoffmeister, the production design of Merijn Sep, and all the performances. Nixon is funny and charming, Ehle a great
sidekick, and there is a charismatic supporting performance by Catherine Bailey as Vryling Buffum, who essentially is Oscar Wilde reinvented as an American Victorian belle.
Vryling—who jokes that her name sounds like an anagram—vies with Emily to see who can make the most devastating witticisms against dull, conventional New England
society and the equally dull, conventional New England men they meet at parties.
Vryling Buffum has been the center of most of the criticism leveled against A Quiet Passion. New Yorker critic Richard
Brody—who loves the film—wrote that Buffum was a real person but a minor figure in Emily’s life, and there is no evidence that
she was anywhere near as witty as she is portrayed in the film.
Brody, however, has no problem with this. “In imagining Dickinson’s friendship with Buffum, Davies breaks from the
external facts of Dickinson’s life,” he writes. “But, more important, that friendship, and the film as a whole, is faithful to
the inner facts—to a truth about the poet that’s revealed only through fiction.”
I am in total agreement with Brody about Vryling Buffum. Emily’s life was so outwardly uneventful that any strong,
imaginative effort to illuminate her personality is welcome. Where I part company with Brody is the film’s second half, in
which Emily becomes the recluse of lore. Davies gives her two good reasons for this: grief over the death of her father, and the
onset of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment—incurable at the time—which causes convulsions and unbearable pain. But at
this point Davies also makes Emily unlikable. She breathes fire at anyone who tries to visit her, and also at her family. “That was
cruel,” Vinnie tells Emily more than once. At this point, A Quiet Passion becomes a chore to watch, which serves no purpose
except to dilute the brilliance of its first half.
Davies has Emily become especially bitter after discovering Austin in flagrante delicto with his young lover Mabel Loomis
Todd (Noemie Schellens), who ironically enough would go on to become the official editor of Emily’s poetry. The affair between
Austin and Todd only became public knowledge in the late 1990s, with the publication of their letters to each other. Precisely
what Emily knew about the affair, or how she knew it, is unknown, though it is improbable she would have been totally
ignorant of it. Certainly she would never have approved, especially since Austin’s wife Susan Gilbert, played in the film by
Jodhi May, was Emily’s closest friend. (Emily’s letters to Susan suggest that her feelings went beyond friendship; Susan’s letters
to Emily were burned after Emily’s death. Davies devotes little screen time to Susan, which was an odd choice.)
The second half of A Quiet Passion does boast a searing performance by Nixon, who is masterful at portraying both
Emily’s piercing intelligence and her emotional and physical anguish. Emily’s funeral, over which Nixon reads “Because I
Could Not Stop for Death,” is moving despite the abrasiveness of what came before. But A Quiet Passion left me with a sour taste
in my mouth, which strikes me as inappropriate for a film about Emily Dickinson.
For a more satisfying if less canonical story about a woman writer in a male-dominated world, Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest is
just the ticket.
Set in 1940 during the darkest days of the London Blitz, Their Finest—written by Gaby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ novel, Their
Finest Hour-and-a-Half--concerns Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a young Welsh woman just moved to London with her
injured artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston). Seeking government work as a secretary, she is assigned instead to the screenwriting
section of the Ministry of War, charged with helping to make propaganda films to raise the morale of the bombed populace.
Catrin finds herself among a motley crew, including Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), the cynical chief screenwriter in the unit, and
Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), an egotistical fading actor whose last chance is in propaganda films.
The crew has been charged with making a film about Dunkirk, and Catrin is sent to the seaside to interview twin sisters Rose
and Lily Starling (Lily and Francesca Knight), who participated in the effort to rescue British soldiers on Dunkirk beach. As it
turns out, Rose and Lily never made it to Dunkirk—their boat’s engine broke down—but Catrin’s bosses still see an inspiring film
to be made, with just a little tweaking of course.
The tweaking demanded by the ministry presents comic difficulties. Catrin’s bosses demand the casting of Carl
Lundbeck (Jake Lacy), a courageous young American flying with the RAF, who has all the acting talent of a rainbow trout.
Meanwhile, Ambrose chafes at the idea that he will be playing the sisters’ drunken uncle in the movie, instead of the lead.
Catrin finds it difficult at first to make headway as a screenwriter. She receives offhanded, disrespectful treatment from almost
everyone, especially Buckley. Buckley, in fact, is disrespectful to everyone and everything, and has strong doubts about the value
of propaganda films. They are just an attempt to impose order and narrative on chaos, he tells Catrin. It’s better to let people
know what they’re truly dealing with.
Their Finest is almost the exact opposite of A Quiet Passion visually. Sebastian Blenkov’s photography and Alice
Normington’s production design are appropriately grim; one of the most startling scenes in the film has Catrin come across the
ruins of a dress shop, seeing mannequins strewn about the street until she notices that one of the lifeless figures is not a
mannequin. Scherfig never lets us forget that her characters live in constant deadly peril. Their Finest puts most horror films to
shame in its deployment of shock. It lulls us into thinking the characters have escaped danger, only to present a new
catastrophe from the most unexpected place. And, unlike most horror films, we care very much about these characters.
Yet Their Finest is in the end an optimistic film. It has a great
deal to say about human courage and resilience. It tells us, contra Buckley, that imposing narrative on our experience is not
only a natural human trait but a moral imperative if we are to keep on living. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is due out later this year, but meanwhile Their Finest exemplifies the Dunkirk spirit
in a very British nutshell.
Arterton gives a sublimely sympathetic performance as Catrin, and she is matched by the other performers, who also include
Eddie Marsan, Rachael Stirling, Helen McCrory and Henry Goodman. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons have cameos.
Special mention must be made of Nighy, one of the most reliable scene-stealers in movies today. His Ambrose Hilliard is both
hilarious and touching as an old-time ham actor who clings to the few shabby rags of his former glory. Nighy allows us to see
the nobility of spirit behind Ambrose’s vanity, so that at the end it is no surprise when he saves the day for Catrin.