While I had some trepidation entering Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion — it is, after all, a biopic of reclusive, shut-in poet Emily Dickinson — I’m a fervent believer that cinema has the power to make even the dullest subjects come alive. I’m a huge admirer of Ken Russell’s pictures, whose biographies of artists, composers and, yes, poets are some of film’s most imaginative, explosive works. My favorite film on the act of writing is David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch, partly because it takes such a passive, anti-social activity like writing and turns it into something transgressive and dangerous, all within a nightmare world of talking cockroaches and weird drugs.
I mention this because I want you to understand where I’m coming from when I say that A Quiet Passion — which is the exact opposite of any of these things — is one of the most mind-numbingly dull and painfully amateurish movies I’ve seen in a while.
A Quiet Passion explores of the life of Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) — who spent the bulk of her life secluded and struggling with loneliness — and does nothing more than lay it out flat in the most basic, unimaginative terms possible. The film starts off with the young Emily (Emma Bell, Final Destination 5), builds a foundation for her reluctance to fall in line with the established order, then drifts through her adulthood, her struggles with her craft and eventually her death. At 128 minutes, it feels like nothing is missed.
This is a very simplified version of the film’s components, but I can’t for the life of me remember much more that happens. Characters sit around and debate, conversing in a constant faux Jane Austen type of repartee, never lacking for a quip or a pithy comeback. The problem is that the dialogue is never as clever as it thinks it is and is constantly distracting from whatever gravity the film thinks it has. Here’s a movie that wants to be fun and light and also illustrate the artistic struggles of a woman who wants little more than true freedom. It manages to nail neither, instead free-falling into a wishy-washy mess of tepidness, too dull to be fun and too hokey to be thoughtful.
Its weighty philosophical concerns are ruined by a cast who can’t handle what’s been put in front of them. Every line is delivered stiffly, as the film’s demands of authenticity in this seemingly repressed yet dignified society sucks the air out of it all. Every joke is punctuated with a smug look, as if every performer is waiting for the laugh track to kick in. Davies does nothing to help, doing little more than plopping the camera in front of the cast while they sputter out his self-satisfied dialogue. It all feels amazingly stage-bound for a movie that’s from an original screenplay and not adapted from a play.
Frankly, the whole film feels unnatural, far too pleased with its own cultured uprightness that it becomes everything one dreads from biopics and stuffy period pieces. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images and brief suggestive material. Now playing at Fine Arts Theatre.