If I tried to tell you about a biographically faithful but artistically daring biopic about Emily Dickinson, and said it seemed like David Lynch directed it, you wouldn’t know what to expect. If you actually watched “A Quiet Passion,” directed by Terence Davies, you wouldn’t know what to think. It is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen.
The constraints and conventions of beautifully costumed period dramas such as this film can be as predictable and confining as one of the corsets worn by its characters. From spicing up the story to adding adventurous, anachronistic elements, many different approaches have been attempted to make these kinds of films more than what amounts to just a nice-looking film of an audiobook. From Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” to the sexed-up Keira Knightley of “Pride and Prejudice,” directors try to find the right recipe for making these old-timey tales more palatable.
Director Davies made choices in “A Quiet Passion” that are simply inexplicable. The film begins with young Emily Dickinson being brilliant and cheeky at school, and soon her beloved family show up to take her back to her beloved home. The father talks in a weird, declarative style. But maybe that’s just a weird paternal thing he does.
But as the scenes progress, everyone in the film starts talking this way. The line delivery is absolutely bonkers. It was like how on “Twin Peaks” some characters, especially the character played by David Lynch himself, shout their lines in a style that is deliberately unrealistic, off putting, theatrical and utterly bizarre. But “utterly bizarre” makes more sense in that context. I truly cannot fathom the direction here. The style must have been intentional; it could not have been just odd, wooden acting, spontaneously achieved by the entire cast.
David Denby of The New Yorker wrote that “A Quiet Passion” is one of the three best films of 2017 so far, and that is why I sought out this film. But I could not get on board with this inexplicable treatment of the story. As Emily Dickinson, Cynthia Nixon does indeed deserve the rave reviews she has received, and she has many moments that are brilliantly portrayed. I suppose the argument could be made that the formal style was how Dickinson heard the world, and Nixon’s show-stopping moments of emotion were the poetic outbursts of her intense and constricted spirit.
But all of that is just something I told myself — the experience of watching the film was altogether bewildering and unsatisfying. Every review I have read sort of explains away these odd directorial choices. My theory is that no one wants to admit they didn’t understand it. But I am here to tell you, the king has nothing on.
“A Quiet Passion” is currently available to rent.
For another personal look at a female artist, the Crescent Theater has “Maudie” opening this week, with the brilliant actress Sally Hawkins as Maud Lewis, a real-life Canadian folk artist who, although stricken with terrible arthritis, created vibrant paintings. Her marriage to a gruff fisherman (Ethan Hawke) was an unlikely source of inspiration, and she eventually painted almost every surface of the shack they shared.
This is a depiction of a difficult romance, and a life that produced artwork against many, many odds. An intimate portrait of a complex life, “Maudie” the film delivers rewards for its unusual circumstances, much like Maud Lewis herself.
“Maudie” is playing at the Crescent Theater.