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
The pacing of Spider is totally understandable, seeing as it entirely takes place in and around a halfway house for recently-released mental patients -- and, obliquely, within the mind of its central character. "Spider" (Ralph Fiennes) is a muttering mess, a paranoid schizophrenic who wears four shirts atop one another and scribbles illegibly in a little book he carefully hides at the end of each day. Just out of the loony bin, Spider hops a train to London, finds his depressing room at the inn, faces annoyed berating at the hands of stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), and immediately begins shutting himself into a cocoon. "Caterpillar" might be a better nickname -- for the man and for the movie.
Continue reading: Spider Review