Produced by Sixty Six Pictures, BBC Films, and The British Film Institute
Directed by William Oldroyd
Screenplay by Alice Birch from the novel by Nikolai Leskov
A Quiet Passion
Produced by Hurricane Films
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Distributed by Music Box Films
The reviews of Lady Macbeth have been nearly unanimous, proclaiming it a work of bold feminist insight. Frankly, I’m puzzled by such acclamation. Maybe I missed the latest turn in feminist ideology. Does feminism now promote murdering fathers-in-law, followed by husbands and children, all in the cause of womanly fulfillment, as does this filmed narrative? This is a bold swerve, indeed. Of course, ideologies do need to be ruthless. Breaking a few eggs has always been on the menu for those intent on serving us the greater omelette.
The film is derived from the 1865 Russian novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. There’s little in the novel to suggest Leskov had feminism in mind when writing it. He seems rather to have been a proto James M. Cain meditating on how capitalism fuses greed and lust until they get murderously out of hand.
The film’s first shot is a tight close-up of Katherine (Florence Pugh) wearing a white wedding veil in a Northumberland chapel. She’s about to be married as part of an arrangement her father made with his wealthy neighbor. Pugh was 19 when the film was made and looks a bit younger than that. As the wedding begins, she glances sidelong to glimpse her beau, Alexander, for the first time. He’s played by Paul Hilton, a man in his late 40’s. The age difference would not be remarkable in itself but for the fact that Alexander appears much older than the nubile Katherine, who seems up for the antic hay. Her hubby’s idea of an erotic evening, however, begins with him barking at the girl to remove her nightshirt and face the wall, after which he enjoys himself by masturbating. Not the height of romance. Other than this gallantry, he rarely bothers with her. When, a few weeks later, he has to take a trip to tend to an accident at his colliery, Katherine finds she’s become fair game for Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a laborer working on her husband’s estate. After initial resistance, she surrenders to his advances and then quickly turns the tables, making him her fair game. In the event, he gets more than he bargained for, not that he complains—at first.
Director William Oldroyd sets the drama up meticulously. The interior scenes are shot in a gray-blue palette that visually betokens the local climate’s chilliness, a fact Alexander uses to demand Katherine remain indoors as much as possible, a stricture she finds intolerable. She likes fresh air, she complains. And with it, freedom. Troubling.
Pugh is a stout, solid young woman. Should her film career go awry, she looks like she might turn to truck driving to put beef and potatoes on her table. Her formidable physical presence makes credible not only the athletic sex she carries on with Sebastian but also her readiness to stand up to her father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank) and the household servants, including Anna (Naomi Ackie), her black lady-in-waiting.
I guess the feminist theme arises from the scenes of Katherine being aggressively corseted by Anna and putting on a royal-blue hoop dress, her red hair tightly pulled back. Repeated shots of her so garmented and coiffed sitting on a gold velvet sofa staring vacantly into space embody bourgeois stultification. What’s a girl to do in such a situation? Well, that’s what we find out in the horrifying denouement that features racial rancor and child abuse.
If this is feminism, include me out, as the great Samuel Goldwyn memorably said.
You wouldn’t think the life of a poet would make a good film, but Terence Davies’ account of Emily Dickinson’s passage through our world is not only a good film, but one of considerable artistic achievement.
Without an abundance of verifiable evidence, Dickinson’s commentators have bestowed on the maid of Amherst various identities: a cloistered spinster, a secret vamp, an exuberant lesbian. Maybe at different times she was all of these. Or maybe none. The one thing we can say without reservation is that she was one of the most vitally vivid lyric poets of the modern age whose work didn’t receive the acknowledgment it deserved in her lifetime. In an 1862 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an Atlantic Monthly editor, she included four of her unpublished poems and asked if he’d comment on them. She particularly wanted to know if they “breathed.” This was Dickinson, perfectly. In one word she expressed what she considered essential to poetry: breath. No one who reads her poetry today can say it doesn’t breathe. That’s why we continue to talk about her.
Dickinson pushed the boundaries of poetry until they accommodated her fierce originality without surrendering to the laxity of free verse, as did her boastful contemporary, the often sloppily self-indulgent Walt Whitman. Even when her verse seems experimental, her poems exhibit a formidable spine. They obey strict rules, albeit some of her own devising. As for her subjects, she most often returned to the boundary lines between order and energy, time and eternity, belief and doubt. Her best poems place us at the border where meaning and puzzlement confront each other.
One poem advises us to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” recognizing that whatever else the truth may be, it can and often does befuddle our limited understanding, and should therefore be handled with due caution.
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
“Dazzle gradually” has the Dickinson stamp, an oxymoron that compresses her meaning until it’s nothing short of combustible.
And there’s her penchant for the near blasphemy of one who takes religion seriously. By putting side by side three perspectives—the human, the natural, and the divine—she’s able to make a simple, seemingly childlike poem an unsettling meditation on our place in the cosmos.
Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved.
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.
Here the first word, “Apparently,” inaugurates the human perspective that soon must confront the enormity of nature’s and, more disturbingly, God’s indifference to worldly events within our ken. By saying “apparently,” the speaker makes clear that she’s startled by the cruelty she has beheld. But can frost really be thought a cruel assassin? What could be more ordinary than flowers wilting in freezing temperatures? What’s the big deal? That’s just it. If nature’s Author is all powerful and all merciful, why do suffering and death commonly afflict His handiwork? Surely He could have designed things with a kindlier touch. This is, of course, the complaining human perspective. The natural world—the happy flower—doesn’t whine. The eighth line is typical of Dickinson. After giving us alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter in iambic rhythm, it shrinks to five syllables, refusing to give us the expected rhyme with “unmoved” in the sixth line. We’re left with a sense of clumsy irresolution that implicitly indicts the Almighty for not providing His handiwork with a pleasing aesthetic balance. Thus, the world seems off kilter, and we’re left to wonder why things don’t add up.
Dickinson seems never to have found the final addition in her own life. From what we know of her, she remained a divided woman to her end. And this is how Davies’ film plays it. Although naturally reticent and given to withdrawal, Dickinson sorely wanted her poetry to be recognized and her life fulfilled in marriage. Although she admired her friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) for her feisty rejection of convention, she also honored her father, Edward Dickinson (Keith Carradine). At least up to a point. When she decides it’s best for her to write daily between 3 and 6 a.m. so she’ll not be distracted by the daily activities of the house, she asks him for permission to carry on so eccentrically. With wise indulgence, he agrees, not troubling to ask why she would want to step beyond the bounds of a normal schedule. But when at dinner he complains that an unclean plate has been set, she calmly picks up the offending china and smashes it to pieces, remarking that it’s now not a plate at all. Respect and defiance have rarely been so civilly engaged.
As Dickinson, Cynthia Nixon walks this tightrope magnificently. Her Dickinson is a woman of unflinching integrity dedicated to the truth of art, so much so that despite her retiring personality, she longs to have her work acknowledged. Although invented by Davies, the scenes with the Rev. Charles Wadsworth, a popular, charismatic preacher of the day, are among the most poignant in the film. Having read his sermons, the actual Dickinson seems to have recognized a kindred spirit. In the film, she has him to tea and gives him a hand-sewn copy of her poetry. When he remarks on the high quality of her work, she entertains further meetings. The Reverend, however, is married to a suffocatingly conventional woman, which makes this impossible. Thus, Davies dramatizes the central struggle of Dickinson’s life: She’s a woman driven to express herself honestly to a world not eager to hear what she has to say. I don’t know what Dickinson would have to say about this, but I thank God her genius wasn’t finally lost to us, as it might have been.
Dickinson suffered from Bright’s disease, which affects the kidneys in such a way as to render the afflicted periodically subject to palsy. For such sufferers, death with dignity is out of the question. As I watched Nixon enact these assaults, I recalled Dickinson’s grim poem “I like a look of Agony,” which speaks with darkest irony of honoring states of agony because they preclude pretense and hypocrisy. “Men do not sham Convulsion / Nor simulate, a Throe,” the poem tells us. Undeniably true, but Nixon somehow does just that. She enacts Dickinson’s throes, making her body shiver uncontrollably and her limbs flail madly. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s wholly convincing. The same can be said for the rest of the film. It’s a remarkably honest and moving piece of work.
Reread Dickinson’s poetry, and go see it.