A Quiet Passion (2017)
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Synopsis: The life of American poet, Emily Dickinson (Emma Bell, Cynthia Nixon).
Review: Having recently read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal 1892 feminist novella, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, it seems more than opportune that I encounter Terence Davies’ exquisite biopic of 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion. Both works are about the domestic and professional restrictions placed on ‘creative’ women in 19th century American society, and the torment and tragedy that comes with that repression.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate director for this sort of material than Davies. He’s an expert literary filmmaker, he’s one of the greatest ever directors of the period movie genre, he’s a master at depicting thwarted desire, and he’s a great filmer of interior stories (and that’s interior as literally denotes indoors as well as internal emotions).
The opening to the film outlines the mastery of Davies’ technique and rhetorical craft as he homes in straight away on the admirable qualities to Dickinson’s character. In a harsh religious school, the cruel headmistress instructs the girls to move to one side if they’ve accepted their subjugation to God (the implication being that they all should do!) All move away bar one – the young Emily (brilliantly incarnated by Emma Bell), who in Davies’ textbook symmetrical framing is depicted straight away as boldly and defiantly apart from convention. The subsequent scene is simply gorgeous, iconographic image-making as Dickinson looks wistfully out amid a sun-drenched room, awaiting her saving from school by her loving family. That family is then charted pictorially in one of Davies’ famed tracking shots (think the underground sequence in The Deep Blue Sea). The edenic haven of Dickinson’s family life is revealed as all the members are either writing, reading or engaged in crochet while the mother and father look lovingly on.
What’s so great about Davies’ work here is that he’s made a film that is at once extremely political and dramatic while also being compellingly interior and existential. The final thirty minutes of the film are especially magical as Davies recedes into one of his hallmark ‘quiet’ fade-outs of his narratives. Dickinson’s silent descent into her middle-aged malcontent state is beautiful – especially the poignant sequence where her and her sister tend to the final moments of their beloved mother.
Comment on the film would be remiss without acknowledging the uniform excellence of Davies’ cast (Keith Carradine as the stern, but generally understanding, family patriarch is especially poised). A Quiet Passion also features the best use of character ageing transitions I’ve ever seen. Davies makes this utilitarian trope utterly relevant by literally morphing the image of the young actor in portrait to the older actor – subtly suggesting the poignancy of ageing and the accrual of experience in the process. (April 2017)
The Bling Ring (2013)
Director: Sofia Coppola
Actors: Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Katie Chang
Synopsis: Feckless teens in Los Angeles go on ever more brazen celebrity burglary trawls.
Review: Sofia Coppola finally falls from her lofty perch with her first unequivocal dud after four previous films of near concentric excellence.
Over the years, many commentators have found the insularity and sameness of the Coppola “cocooned malcontents” canvas a problem. Previously, it never seemed much of an issue to me as she is not a dramaturgical filmmaker: she doesn’t engage in overt moral commentaries, and she’s more interested in sensualising the worlds of her protagonists than judging them.
With The Bling Ring, Coppola seeks to depict the brazen fecklessness of a troupe of San Fernando Valley teens who embark on an increasingly inane set of celebrity burglaries around LA. The subject matter in itself needn’t be a concern (although making interesting the inner-worlds of these vapid narcissists is pushing the boat out perhaps a bit too much). Where Coppola fails is in her usual alchemy of making their inner-lives swoonworthy and transcendent. First, she indulges in faux framing interviews with the teen felons as they look back on their indiscretions. This is a meek narrative device: very un-Coppola and very uninteresting. Second, beyond the following of the teens around their pulverisingly glib visual and aural universe (we get a lot of bourgeois co-opted house music and gangsta rap montages), there’s very little interiority or poetry. And finally, the film is a rhetorical catastrophe. Coppola plays it like it’s an ingenious satire throughout but it’s really so obvious, so relentless and so leadenly portrayed. It almost hearkens to the inadvertently lame culture clash skits at the beginning of Lost in Translation. Where that film differed is that it was rescued by the beautiful and uncanny air of transitory epiphany Coppola conjured. Here she’s unable to pull off any such magic act.
Please follow the below link to read my article on one of my favourite films, Mulholland Drive.
All Over the Town (1949)
Director: Derek N. Twist
Actors: Norman Wooland, Sarah Churchill, Cyril Cusack
Synopsis: Nat Hearn (Norman Wooland) returns to his provincial hometown of Tormouth after serving during the Second World War. He resumes his job on the local paper, and quickly realises his newfound liberal perspective is at odds with the conservatism and vested interests of many in the local community.
Review: There’s nothing especially revelatory about this sweet little British studio film from the late 1940s, however those with an interest in the social history of Lyme Regis (which has been converted into the fictional town of “Tormouth”) and a fondness for the Ealing comedy brand of light farce will find this diverting.
Director Derek Twist does an exemplary job of honouring the film’s very title – “All Over the Town” – and overall conceit of ex-serviceman, Nat, returning to the homefront, and realising everything he fought for isn’t translating to the increasingly staid town he grew up in. The opening section where Nat walks down the main high street and reconnects with the townsfolk buzzes with vivacity as well as being a sage way of introducing all the dramatic personnel.
Although there is an inherent industrialism and predictability about the film’s narrative cogs, its commentary on provincial social politics immediately post-war is interesting. The send-up of the pomposity of the townsfolk with their risible am-dram theatre production is brilliant, and the performance of Cyril Cusack as the terribly cowardly and timid newspaper magnate, Gerald, is a real pleasure. (April 2017)
Follow the below link to read my piece championing Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth.
On what would have been Andrei Tarkovsky’s 85th birthday, and to mark the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of his majestic Solaris, please follow the below link to a piece I wrote proposing Solaris as a film with an unusual interpretation of the femme fatale tradition:
Love and Friendship (2016)
Director: Whit Stillman
Actors: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett
Synopsis: Scandalous widow, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), sets hearts and tongues aflutter as she bounces between a selection of stuffy, conservative households in late 18th century England.
Review: Although nominally adapted from Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan”, Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship can be best read as a part-loving, part-satirical homage to the now hugely over-familiar Austen brand of romantic entanglements and sly social commentary.
Various features portray this intent to essentially manufacture an Austen pastiche for weary contemporary audiences: he introduces all the players in bizarre, comic poses with irreverent caption, and he makes Kate Beckinsale’s mischievous Lady Vernon a quasi-anachronistic conduit round which the pomposity of late 18th century English aristocratic society is laid bare. One lovely early scene that thematises Stillman’s undercutting of the usual, exalted Austen canvas is when Lady Vernon’s new residence, Churchill, appears in view, yet she describes it as “boring” although in any other Austen adaptation this would be a conventional country house for the drama to play out on. Another such scene is when Lady Vernon comes across Reginald DeCourcy – worthy of romantic hero status in any other Austen drama – but Lady Vernon’s sole intent is to undercut that nobility by making him totally emotionally subservient to her (which she succeeds in doing).
Stillman’s final triumph is in the grand inclusion of the colossally rich (but colossally stupid) aristocrat, Sir James Martin – incidentally, a great performance by Tom Bennett. Martin essentially becomes the means by which Vernon can retain her place in exalted society without the least bit of emotional investment, and Martin’s idiocy comes out in a series of ingenious skits – the best of which is when he claims there are “twelve commandments” and then haphazardly has to backtrack by claiming two can be removed at one’s own will when the other characters inform him there are only ten! It’s a lovely little skit that honours the pleasing charm Stillman is able to project over his subject matter. (April 2017)