A Quiet Passion at TIFF16

“A Quiet Passion” is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. It is written and directed by the esteemed English auteur Terence Davies, who brought us the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth” in 2000, “The Deep Blue Sea” based on Terence Rattigan’s play in 2011, and last year’s “Sunset Song”, a beautiful cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.

Literary filmmaking is Davies’ repertoire. If a movie is about a poet, under his helm, it is only natural that it would be crafted like poetry. In this sense, “A Quiet Passion” is a fine example. Every frame is meticulously composed and lit, the atmosphere dense with meaning. We also hear lines from Dickinson’s poems read out as voiceover. We experience poetry in sight and sound.

However, not all poetry is of the Romantics, roaming vales and hills, dancing with the daffodils. Davies’s Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) is confined in her father Edward’s (Keith Carradine) Amherst house. Her main human interactions are with her immediate family, a stern father, a depressed mother (Emily Norcross), an attorney brother Austin (Duncan Duff), and her younger sister (Jennifer Ehle). If she ever felt claustrophobic, there’s her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) and her close friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey). Too narrow a social circle? Not really, for they are all responsible for sharpening her views and words. And they make a wonderful cast.

 

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Terence Davies, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey
Under the direction of Davies, Cynthia Nixon (of ‘Sex and the City’ fame) portrays Emily Dickinson with an austere persona restrained by social mores and troubled by unrequited romantic pursuit. She might have been a rebel with a just cause in confronting restrictive societal norms, but I was surprised to see Dickinson here as a verbal combatant, a bitter and belligerent soul. Somehow from my limited reading of her poetry, that image has not set in my mind.

“A Quiet Passion” is a mixed bag of oxymoron. In an austere setting, characters deliver ornate speeches like you only hear in a stage play. Shrouded in a confining milieu, you hear comedic exchanges and humorous, deadpan facial expressions, even LOL moments. While the cinematography is meditative and calm (as in Davies’ last work “Sunset Song”), the feeling evoked is unsettling anticipation.

Emily’s supportive and devoted sister Lavinia (Vinnie), well played by Jennifer Ehle (of Elizabeth Bennet fame), gives me a breath of fresh air, for often she is the quiet passion supporting the poet, a gentle strength and a moral compass. Vinnie is the pragmatic and rational voice, like reminding Emily that Rev. Wadsworth—on whom Emily has a romantic crush—is a married man. But she is ever so sweet and pleasant as Jennifer Ehle is, even when admonishing.

The sisterhood between Nixon’s Emily and Ehle’s Vinnie makes me think of another literary sisterhood, that of Jane and Cassandra Austen. But what a difference. I long for Jane’s joie de vivre, something that’s missing here in this relatively harsh portrayal of Emily Dickinson. Further, I couldn’t help but compare this film with another that’s also about a poet: Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” (2009), a beautiful cinematic rendering of the English Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish).

The last scenes are as severe as they are heart breaking. Death may be a frequent motif in Dickinson’s poetry, as Emily had experienced the passing of her parents, but the constant pounding of her own illness makes me think of another oxymoron: superfluous suffering. The repeated scenes of seizures Emily goes through in the last section of the film may be a bit too much to watch for some, although Nixon has certainly given us a true-to-life performance. I can’t imagine all the takes she had to repeat, acting out those excruciating seizures on her bed.

When asked about the seizures in the Q & A after, Nixon replied that she had not done any research or specifically prepared; she just went ahead and did it. All the research had been done by Davies. He had read up on volumes of Dickinson’s biographies for the film.

What “A Quiet Passion” has done for me is stirring up my curiosity in finding out what Emily Dickinson the person was really like, and, I want to delve into more of her poetry. I have to remind myself though that the cinematic portrayal here is only Davies’ own interpretation and personal response to her poetry. I just like to explore on my own.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

 

 

I’m nobody! Who are you?

April is still here I’m glad. Here’s a timely piece to join in the celebration of National Poetry Month.

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I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there are two of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

 

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Oh the comfort of anonymity, no need to trend, to like or be liked, to climb the social media ladder, to reach new heights with more followers. Dickinson sure enjoyed her reclusive life, felt fine with being an unknown. Most of her poems were published posthumously, including this one.

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Write Where You Are

During my New England road trip, I’ve visited several literary places. Now these are my own way of storing my memories. Whatever site I’ve been that relates to a literary figure, I categorize it as such. And it’s interesting to note the different sources of inspiration.

Thoreau went for the minimal, the Spartan way of existence. So he built a log cabin in the woods and kept only the simplest furniture. Why he only stayed for two years two months and two days may be self-explanatory. But no matter, we’re glad he had tasted the bare minimum for us so we can read all about it in his book.

Interior

By comparison, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned those woods where Thoreau had his experiment, lived in relative luxury and comfort. Here’s his residence, not a mansion but still a handsome house.

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And inside the Concord Museum I saw his study with a flashy fuchsia decor which Thoreau might not have raved about. Just might not, but one never knows. They were friends.

Emerson's Study

Ralph Waldo’s grandfather The Rev. William Emerson’s house, The Old Manse (Scottish term for ‘Minister’s House’), wasn’t shabby either. Quietly situated by the river, a historic residence where literary figures gathered and where Ralph Waldo had lived for a while and wrote Nature, which sparked the Transcendental Movement (1834-35).

Manse 2

Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived in the same house too for a few years (1842-45), writing a book called Mosses from an Old Manse. He enjoyed the garden immensely; it was planted by Thoreau in 1842 to celebrate Hawthorne’s marriage to Sophia Peabody. Hawthorne could have found inspiration right there among the beets.

The Beets

Longfellow, on the other hand, was intrigued by an old tavern and boarding house he had stayed one time in 1862. A homestead made into a lodge for itinerant farmers and transient guests had put stories in the mind of the creative, hence the publication of the Poet’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. For its namesake, the premises had since been named Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.

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Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House looks like a warm haven for story brewing too, even though the family could have used more material goods than their philosophically-minded father had provided:

The Orchard House

Back to Nature, the aspiring young poet Edna St. Vincent Millay climbed to the top of Mt. Battie in Camden and beheld the magnificent bird’s eye view of Penobscot Bay. Sky and water pressed close into the impressionable mind of young Edna, triggering a catalyst reaction of permanent change.

View from the top 3

For another, it’s the connection with the land, the toiling of the soil, the gathering of its fruits that inspired. He might have many roads to choose, but aren’t we glad Robert Frost had chosen orchard tending in Vermont and not the ones he did not; we get plenty of thoughts.

Frost's Apple

And for those born into affluence and wed into more, life was a choice of how to use the resources one gets. I’m glad that Edith Wharton had spent her fortune on something that can be left behind for me to set foot on, yes, The Mount.

EW's Garden

I learned too that her legacy had been more than literary pleasures and architectural delights, but something more altruistic after she moved to Paris.

As WWI broke out, Wharton could have gone back to America for safe haven. But she stayed in France, and poured herself in the war efforts, which was inspiration in itself. Here I quote from The Mount’s webpage:

“She set up workrooms for unemployed seamstresses, convalescent homes for tuberculosis sufferers, hostels for refugees, and schools for children fleeing war-torn Belgium. In the first seven months of her efforts, nearly 900 refugees were cared for, “including the nuns and about 200 infirm old men and women, who are ‘children’ too … and could not be left alone in the ruins.” (Edith Wharton, New York Times, 1915)”

and the story didn’t end there… Click on the above link to read more.

Where does one find inspiration, motivation? The answer can vary as much as asking what I should eat today. But one thing I’d experienced on this trip was that life can be lived in myriads of ways, and with it comes inspiration; it could be as simple as a leaf on the ground, or as huge as a war. But I’ll choose the leaf, thank you.

The Leaf

Wherever I am, that’s a good start.

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My New England Road Trip Series:

Vermont: More than Scenery

Vermont has so much to offer on top of the scenery. But I’ll start with that.

The hills are alive overlooking a breathtaking view of the distant Green Mountains. That was what attracted the von Trapp Family to settle there. Right, that’s the Family von Trapp of The Sound of Music fame. Goerg and Maria moved to Vermont in 1941 and bought a 300 acre farm near Stowe, as that location reminded them of their native Austria. There on the mountain top they started a guest lodge and had since developed into what is now an upscale resorts on 2,500 acres.

The Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, VT, owned and operated by the eldest son of Maria and Georg von Trapp:

Trapp Family LodgeJust 36 miles west of Stowe was Lake Champlain on the edge of Burlington, a vibrant college town. The Lake is a large body of fresh water, once called the sixth of the Great Lakes. It borders the States of Vermont, New York and stretches up north to Quebec, Canada.

At the pier of Lake Champlain:

Lake ChamplainI totally get how this boat is named:

DSC_0096I took the Vermont scenic drive Rt. 100 and headed south from Stowe. My destination was Bennington in the southwest corner of the State.

Not far from Stowe I arrived at Waterbury, a town with lots of restaurant choices for such a small place. I visited two major tourist sites there.

Just off RT 100 was the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory, and they sure were prepared for the hundreds of visitors on the day I was there. A well organized and informative factory tour let me see how two college buddies’ $50 investment on an online ice cream making course had come to fruition. What’s impressive is their commitment to use supplies from local farms and cows that are steroids-free. A fair trade business to ensure global responsibility. (no, I don’t get a buck for writing this.)

Product MissionIn contrast, not far from the madding crowd at Ben & Jerry’s was the serene Waterbury Reservoir. When I got there it was already past sunset. So glad I could still take these photos:

Waterbury Reservoir

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Reservoir

Continued on Vermont Rt. 100 south I came by this most interesting site in the fields outside the small town of Waitsfield, population: 1,719 (2010). Here I found The Big Picture Theater, screening The Martian:

DSC_0103Two posters at the door caught my attention:

Kickstarter FFDownton Talk

One was a “Kickstarter Film Festival”. An indie film festival in this area? I was most impressed.

Another poster was about a talk on “The Costumes of Downton Abbey”. Here’s what the poster says if you can’t see it clearly (above right):
“Jule Emerson, former Costume Designer and Theater Professor at Middlebury College will discuss the fashions worn by Lady Mary and her family in the popular PBS series Downton Abbey. Free and Open to the Public”

No place is too remote for films and the Crawleys.

Rt. 100 offered some fall scenery very different from NH. I was attracted by the clumps of trees in distant hills along the road. It was a cloudy day, so instead of seeing bright and cheery foliage, I was captivated by the moody atmosphere. Just as beautiful:

Moody

Before arriving at Bennington, I stopped by South Shaftsbury to visit Robert Frost Stone House Museum. Frost bought the stone house and its 80 acres land in 1920, moving from the White Mountains in NH to warmer Vermont mainly for “a better place to farm and especially grow apples.” Aren’t we glad that he threw in some poems as well in his time-off from apple-picking.

In this fertile soil Frost not only gathered apples but poetic harvests as well. In the Stone House, there’s a “Stopping by Woods” Room where the Poet wrote his most famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A facsimile of the handwritten manuscript and many other pertinent materials – parody included – were displayed. Trust my words. I didn’t want to get caught taking pictures in a ‘Photography Forbidden’ premises.

I did take photos outside of Frost’s Stone House:

Frost's Stone Houseand his juicy legacy, the apple tree in front of the house:

DSC_0205From Shaftsbury I drove the few blocks to Bennington, There at the back of the First Congregational Church was the cemetery where Robert Frost was buried.

Yes, the sky was that blue that day:

DSC_0270Frost’s grave gathered no pens or pencils as I saw in Authors Ridge of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord ; instead, people have left pennies there. If they were meant to be tributes to the Poet, it’s simply mind boggling to see how people could think a penny would suffice. Allow me to offer a little alteration to a common saying, standing in front of Frost’s grave: If you don’t have anything poetic to leave there, don’t leave anything.

DSC_0251Coming up: my last stop, Lenox, MA.

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