British writer-director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) is an expert at digging beneath the surfaces of his stories and characters. So it's especially intriguing to see him take on a biopic about the enigmatic American poet Emily Dickinson. Like her writing, the film has a moody, dry exterior that conceals a fiendishly sharp wit. It's also an unusually smart film, combining emotional resonance with brainy conversation, even as it moves at a glacial pace.
It's set in 19th century Massachusetts, where Emily (young Emma Bell, then Cynthia Nixon) grows up in a fiercely religious household. But then, everyone in this community is devout to the point of distraction, and no one knows what to do about Emily's unusually outspoken thoughts. The way she speaks about her faith horrifies her parents (Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon), even though they raised Emily and her siblings Vinnie and Austin (Jennifer Ehle and Duncan Duff) to think for themselves. As Emily begins publishing her poems anonymously, she also challenges the role of women in this society, where they're expected to be little more than decoration. So it's no wonder that the plain-speaking new arrival Vryling (Catherine Bailey) catches her attention.
The film covers the final decades in Emily's life, punctuating scenes with her evocative, often disturbing poetry. Davies keeps the period details crisp and unfussy, using period photographs to great effect, such as in the striking sequence that traces the American Civil War. That said, the Dickinson family's life seems like little more than a sequence of nasty diseases and personal conflicts, which isn't easy to stick with. Thankfully, Nixon brings an alertness to Emily that catches the imagination, and her connection with Ehle's Vinnie is lively and engaging. These two women are inquisitive and sharp, in stark contrast to the gloomy people around them.
Continue reading: A Quiet Passion Review
Nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson might be well known now for her classic catalogue of work, but when she was alive she was elusive to most. As much as she was always a bright, intelligent and well-behaved child, as she grew older she disappointed her father Edward by refusing to marry or give herself to the church. Instead, she preferred her own company; shutting herself inside and becoming so reclusive and reluctant of guests that she was noticed by many. She shared few friendships in her lifetime, and even those she had - like that with sister-in-law Susan Gilbert - were wrought with pain and uncertainty. She was the victim of a number of bereavements in her lifetime, experiences that would have a massive effect on her health and her later popular literary work.
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This isn't your usual period movie. A powerfully emotional depiction of rural Scottish life at the turn of the 20th century, Terence Davies' drama is both strikingly earthy and artfully beautiful. Based on the classic 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, it's a gritty story that takes a deeply personal approach to both the time and place, building complex characters that are so easy to identify with that we feel each surge of happiness and heartbreak.
It's set in The Mearns, in the Scottish north east, where Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) grew up on her family farm hoping to one day become a teacher. But her perpetually pregnant mother (Daniela Nardini) simply can't take any more of this, and her sensitive brother Will (Jack Greenlees) moves to get away from their hardened father John (Peter Mullan), leaving Chris to care for him. Eventually she ends up running the farm herself, and finally finds some happiness when she falls for nice-guy neighbour Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). She worries about him becoming like her father, but their marriage is blissfully sweet. Until the Great War breaks out and he enlists to join the fight.
The story's main focus is on the way the demands of life change us in both obvious and subtle ways. This gives the film a complexity that gets deep under the skin, making the themes timeless while also challenging preconceptions. For example, instead of just being a villainous brute, John's violence might be a symptom of his experiences. And Chris' tough-minded tenacity may come from the same place that pushed her mother over the edge. Like us, these are people trying to steer their destinies in the face of everyday pressures and the forces of nature. And yet the film never feels terribly bleak. It's hard and gruelling, but also hopeful.
Continue reading: Sunset Song Review
Chris is a young heroine from a rural Scottish community, with an intense passion for life and a loyalty to the often unforgiving land, who has given her heart to the unsettled Ewan.
With a dysfunctional family, who have already faced dark times, Chris choses to devote herself to the land as World War One begins changing the world around her. But when Ewan decides to enlist in the army, Chris faces greater hardships than ever before as her once happy marriage crumbles.
As all seems lost Chris, a woman of remarkable strength, is able to draw from the ancient land at look to the future, even if the modern world is threatening everything she holds dear.
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Hester (Weisz) is tormented by the trajectory of her life: the wife of High Court judge Sir William (Beale), she has fallen for the dashing Battle of Britain pilot Freddie (Hiddleston), who lets their physical relationship dissipate as he struggles to find a role in society after the war. Now isolated and desperate, Hester attempts suicide but only succeeds in making her life worse. Freddie is furious, and William is unnervingly caring. She's caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: is there any way she can have a happy life?
Continue reading: The Deep Blue Sea Review
Davies' films (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) have always looked to the past as both memory and memory's sometimes distorted recollections. Much like last year's My Winnipeg of Guy Maddin, Davies looks at both the past of a city and his own past there, twisting both into a funhouse mirror. Maddin, of course, barely gets out of his childhood alive, but for Davies, his Liverpool is a state of lost innocence killed when modernity and puberty set in. He quotes Shelley in the opening shot, an image of a slowly opening curtain in a movie house, "The happy highways where I went and cannot come again." Davies is already placing Liverpool as a mythic town of his childhood and boldly states, "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented."
Continue reading: Of Time And The City Review
Welcome then to The House of Mirth, a period piece which bears little happiness for those within. Or, ultimately, for those in the audience.
Continue reading: The House Of Mirth Review
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