A Quiet Passion Delivers Poetry to Screen Faux Pas

A Quiet Passion’s only draw is its protagonist—Emily Dickinson—but as it turns out the film’s not even about her.

a quiet passion

What Paterson hit A Quiet Passion missed

Within four months two poem-to-screen films hit distribution. A Quiet Passion offers a biographical sketch of Emily Dickinson, interpreted by her own poetry. Paterson draws a story—inspired by William Carlos Williams selection of poetry entitled ‘Paterson’. Paterson’s secret ingredient is subtlety. Each scene urges a delightful inspection of the details. In QP, subtlety fades to slumber right around the thirty-minute mark. The QP screenplay is remarkably uneventful. Dickinson’s life may have lacked dramatic intrigue, but the filmmakers mistook drama for event and left us with a lack luster sequence of meaningless scenes.

Dickinson’s ‘greatest hits’ falls flat

The A Quiet Passion screenplay finagled Dickinson’s ‘greatest hits’ to fit its own objectives. The poems are not only forced into the story, but also grossly out of place. Rather than guiding the viewers’ affections and attentions they break the flow of the story, espousing not contemplation, but confusion.
The poems selected for the screenplay seemed to emerge from a high school textbook. Dickinson’s work is dense and broad. In several cases lesser known poems would have illuminated the story, rather than drug it along by a cryptic hitch of vaguely repeated themes.

Historicity and interpretation should be in dialogue

People will always take issue with films about real people. It’s obvious. I mean, history is never just fact. It’s always being interpreted by somebody. Welcoming differing interpretations of reality is the foundation for viewing art, but, there is a fine line between interpretation and manipulation. The use of Dickinson’s poems to understand her life appeared counterproductive. I almost had to squint to see where, writer and director, Terrence Davies wanted me to look. The interpretation seemed oddly disconnected from the actual poetry itself. I expected more from Davies.

Preach it—or don’t

Great films are not venting sessions to shame or correct or advise whomever sits out there in those woolly red seats. It’s as if Davies used the mouths of phony characters as megaphones for personal propositions. I’m not saying that it is wrong for filmmakers to have opinions and tastes and guide the story by them. Forcing a story to fit an abstract proposition to which it, organically, has little to do produces a disingenuous film.

As a generous middle-aged woman, whom I met in the restroom after the show, said “It might have been better as a book.” —emphasis on might.

 *Limited US distribution April 14, 2017

– K. Pastore

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