A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

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Stoker

Shoemaggeddon

India StokerDoes Stoker mark the return of symbolism in film?  Regardless of how you read the interwoven narrative imagery, the post-Hitchcock camera acrobatics, and the sheer haunting uniqueness of it all, Stoker does things with cinematography unlike anything any of us are likely to see duplicated in the foreseeable future.

I may have used the term “image pattern” when looking at films before, but it’s a literary term, and this is the first film I’ve seen that uses image patterning in a literary way.  Consider the opening, in which a spider crawls up the stockinged leg of the lead character, India Stoker (the incomparable Mia Wasikowska) while she’s playing the piano.  An inexplicable sense of suspense follows the spider, despite the fact that we have no clue what kind of spider it is, whether it intends to harm her, or what it means if she smashes it.  But this scene is not resolved yet, despite the seemingly miniscule stakes relying upon its resolution.  Instead, since it revolves entirely around the image of the spider, it joins a string of short scenes, collected as the film’s story moves forward, that also revolve around nebulously-related imagery, including India lying in tall grass with a hunting rifle and awaiting her father’s (Dermot Mulroney) okay to take a critical shot at a fluttering bird; the image of the bird itself; people making snow-angels on surfaces other than snow; and others.  These scenes, which I might call micro-narratives, weave into the forward action in such a way that wondering where that spider ends up (and why) weighs as heavily on the audience as do thoughts about who’s going to live through the film’s central ordeal.  The starkest and most overt piece of imagery, though, focuses on India’s shoes and feet – we first see her popping a blister after running through the woods, realizing that she has outgrown her favorite shoes (unique blue-and-white low-tops which, were the world still small, would be selling out of department stores right about now).  But on her 18th birthday, as on every other birthday, she receives another pair of the same shoes.  I use the word “symbolism” because there are very clear “Who is what?” and “What means what?” questions silently posed to the audience through color and repetition.

The story that collects these images involves the young India, whose father, Richard, has recently died in a rather mysterious car accident.  India’s mother, Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman), is known to be very dependent, and the wealthy Stoker family’s servants assume that India will be the one taking care of things from now on, not her mother.  Out of nowhere appears India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who claims that since his brother is dead, he will temporarily stay with the family and help take care of their massive property during their time of grief.  The catch?  Neither Evelyn nor India ever knew that Richard had any siblings.  Evelyn, ever reliant on others, is intrigued by Charlie and welcomes all of his methods of comfort.  India, introverted and sheltered, doesn’t know what to make of her uncle.  Does he want to replace her father?  It doesn’t help that her relationship with her mother is strained and loveless, and that she will let no one touch her.  When Charlie claims that he just wants to be friends, India responds that “We don’t have to be friends.  We’re family.”

The beautiful and haunted piano/string score by Clint Mansell demands that this film take a turn for the macabre, and the red lights surround Uncle Charlie as soon as he appears.  What, we must wonder, does he want from the family?  Thankfully, India asks this the first time she’s alone with him, and we’re not left with a list of obvious questions that inept characters in horror movies never ask.  But the film’s sense of unsettling perplexity, not to mention what amounts to gorgeously-presented visual and aural poetry, allows us the knowledge that Charlie is the villain early on without ruining any of the intrigue.  During dinner with India’s visiting great-aunt Gin (Jacki Weaver), Evelyn mentions Charlie’s world travels, and a horrified look washes over Gin’s face before she tells Evelyn they need to talk about Charlie.  Before this can happen, Charlie murders her and a housekeeper who also seemed to know something about him.  Even more interesting is the fact that it seems like Charlie wants India to know about his penchant for killing and burying people (regardless, she finds out when she attempts to phone Auntie Gin at her hotel, and hears the latter’s ringtone coming from beneath the soil in the backyard).

Meanwhile, the greatest conflict is a case of Character vs. Self: India is eighteen and ready to wake up, ready to be “free,” as she puts it in a too-telling-but-not-telling-enough voiceover.  But she’s been cooped in her parents’ home her entire life and her only solace is in music.  She’s an accomplished pianist.  She is ostracized at school for being “weird” and seemingly asexual.  When she witnesses her mother and Charlie growing intimate, she imitates them and seeks the affections of Whip Taylor (Alden Ehrenreich), a classmate she trusts.  But she only wants to kiss him.  He has other plans, and attacks her.  Charlie, who shamelessly stalks India, materializes out of the shadows, and the body count rises.  She helps him bury the body, and we begin to worry for her.  Later, in the shower, she masturbates while thinking about the murder.  India, whose coming-of-age has seemingly been delayed, is awakening, but the admixture of Uncle Charlie and the violent nature of her own life prevent this awakening from being her own.

Through one thing and another, with the assorted micro-narratives vying for top-shelf plot importance, the truth comes out: Charlie, while on his apparent world travels, wrote dozens of letters to India as she grew, hoping to one day meet her.  The letters were intercepted by Richard, who locked them in his study for reasons unknown to India until she looks at the back of the envelopes and realizes that Charlie never traveled the world; he was shut away in a mental institution for most of his life.  India also discovers that her father and Charlie had another brother, Jonathan, whom Charlie killed as a child out of jealously for his relationship with Richard.  On India’s eighteenth birthday, Charlie was released from the institution, but then murdered Richard after the latter refused to let him meet India (and for good reason).  But India’s inner conflict is still approaching a boil, and she does not act out as we expect the protagonist of a thriller to do.  Charlie’s beautiful prose still dazzles her, and after another fight with her mother, she tells Charlie she will travel with him to New York.  He presents her with another box of shoes, but this time, they are not the identical blue-and-whites she has worn her entire life; these are high heels, the societal symbol of female adulthood (and, I might add, a patriarchal device for physically constraining women, and there’s something to be said for that here).  India steps into them and walks with ease.

Evelyn, realizing what is happening and reaching the point of ultimate fury at being unable to bond with her daughter, asks, “You were supposed to love me, weren’t you?”  When Charlie’s last plan before leaving the Stoker home is to seduce and kill Evelyn, expecting India to help him, the results are quite different, and as India brings out her old hunting rifle, the mosaic of micro-narrative images comes to a crescendo (as does Mansell’s score).  This scene – and this bears repeating – is so disparate from anything in recent film narrative, that it’s a miracle we are able to cling to the characters through the fantastically musical realization of virtually everything we have encountered in the film so far – including the spider.  It begins on the floor, makes its way up India’s leg, crawls up her thigh and past the hem of her skirt, and is last seen slipping across Charlie’s doornail-dead face.  No, India seems to say, I will not be controlled this way; this gift you gave me, I will give back.

The final scene, whether needed or not, poses some questions and answers other ones.  What kind of woman has India become?  Whether or not she’s leaving the Stoker home for good, and regardless of her methods, one thing is clear: she’s going to protect her family’s name, and to a separate-but-equal extent, her mother.

Mia Wasikowska, who gleamed as Jane Eyre in 2011, finally gets another starring role in which to showcase her various gifts.  Look at the difference in these performances.  More importantly, India is a strong character.  She’s layered and exists beyond her quirks, beyond what the plot calls for.  An introvert, a musician, a painter, a hunter. Reflexes like you’ve never seen.  A sheltered girl considering what it means to come of age before she goes ahead and does it.  Is the film commenting on womanhood?  I imagine that different viewers will have different readings of it, but all of the clues (think micro-narrative) must lead somewhere.  I am still flabbergasted that this film was scripted by Wentworth Miller (and kind of impressed that he submitted it using a pen name so that the film could be published upon its own merits and not his fame), an actor I would not have thought to possess such feminine sensibilities (violence notwithstanding).  The joke is on me.

This is an important film.

P.S. Thematic voiceover is still sloppy and flaccid.

Stoker_teaser_posterStoker (2013); written by Wentworth Miller; directed by Park Chan-wook; starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman. 

Jane Eyre

Anything but plain

It has been a long time, maybe forever, since I attended a movie that drew actual gasping and sobbing from the audience.  Nothing surprises us anymore.  Maybe it’s something about the clientele of an independent theatre vs. Regal (the latter of which makes one cry because of the ticket/concession prices, not the quality of the film).  Regardless, Cary Fukunaga’s film adaptation of Jane Eyre, based upon Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Gothic novel, made that happen.

For those of you non-literary readers (a term which seems backwards and perverse in and of itself), the first thing to note about Jane Eyre is that the novel is not simply a period romance, which is how it has been adapted in about twenty-four films and TV specials.  The novel itself is a Bildungsroman story featuring elements of Gothic horror and social criticism, and is most notably one of the earliest examples of the phrase “ahead of its time”: a gorgeous work of literature featuring a self-reliant female protagonist.  Jane is highly moral, but mature and individualistic, capable of evolving on her own, never appearing as a damsel in distress, never in need of rescue.  Fukunaga remembers all of this.

The story follows Jane Eyre, of course, played in this version by the staggeringly talented Mia Wasikowska (about whom I gushed in my Alice in Wonderland piece).  Growing up in the house of her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), Jane is frequently abused, physically and mentally.  Reticence, however, is not in Jane’s vocabulary.  She educates herself, sneaking a look at books when no one is around, as well as talking (and striking) back when provoked by her cousins.  As a result, she is told that she is deceitful, and is sent off to a special girls’ school.  Fukunaga gives us these early sections of the story in the form of flashbacks, with the interest of showing us that Wasikowska plays the version of Jane with whom we’ll be spending the most time.  This shifts the linear storytelling of the novel, but in the film, it’s not terribly distracting.  It’s not terribly needed either, but there you go.  With one thing and another, Jane becomes Governess at Thornfield Manor, teaching the young ward of Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender), with whom she will eventually fall in love, and befriending the aging housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench).

An amazing aspect of this film is that it retains the storytelling point of view of the novel: Jane Eyre is told from Jane’s perspective.  In the film, we never get a scene without Jane.  Mia Wasikowska (and to a lesser but nearly as powerful degree, young Amelia Clarkson) carries this entire film on her shoulders.  Often, in films like these, it’s ninety percent first-person, then the filmmaker caves in because (s)he can’t figure out how to tell an important piece of exposition without cutting away from the established perspective – not here.  We’re always with Jane, and more importantly, we want to stay with her.

Michael Fassbender appears as the story’s Byronic hero, and does so with a humor that makes us love Mr. Rochester but never even approaches the fourth wall, as many period pieces feel they must.  As a friend put it, “Fassbender not playing a douchebag in a military uniform, for once?”  Yes, and it’s magical to watch.  This film’s release was limited, but I’m holding out hope that the two leads will get the recognition they deserve from these performances. Appropriately, Rochester’s apparent love interest, Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots) actually performs one of Lord Byron’s musical pieces.  Everything from the score, the architecture and the atmosphere to the social and scientific assumptions of the time period are retained.  Judi Dench, as usual, is sweet and grandmotherly, and can set the tone of an entire scene with one facial expression (one that comes to mind is the scene in which Mrs. Fairfax first sees Jane and Rochester together).  Jamie Bell also appears as Jane’s cousin (a detail left out in the film), the pious St. John Rivers, who takes Jane in after her unceremonious exeunt from Thornfield.

Fiction writer David Jauss suggests, in his essay, Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life, that we authors of fiction try to write our way into characters whose lives we know nothing about. On paper, we become different people.  In Charlotte’s time, she was writing about herself – Jane Eyre, judging from what we know, mirrors Charlotte as a person in the most striking of ways (often summed up in brusque phrases such as “a woman with a strong heart,” but take from it what you will).  If I may be so bold, I think if Charlotte had lived to see the dawn of film, or hadn’t passed away with an unborn child, she/her descendants would have been more pleased with Fukunaga’s adaptation of the story and Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane than any version of either done before.

It might be worth mentioning that in Charlotte’s time, people were still figuring things out – things like the way sound travels.  In several sections of the story, Jane hears voices, the most important of which occurs when she hears Rochester calling her name and decides to return to him.  In all our romanticizing, we forget that in this period of the world, people weren’t sure this kind of thing wasn’t possible – that you couldn’t hear someone softly calling your name from leagues away.  In this adaptation of Jane Eyre, I promise you’ll hear Charlotte’s, just a little.

Jane Eyre (2011); written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë; directed by Cary Fukunaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.

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