Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Maudie" and "A Quiet Passion"

As much as I liked Sally Hawkins in "The Shape of Water," the 2017 performance of hers I'm going to remember is her appearance as the title character in "Maudie," a biopic of Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. Afflicted by rheumatoid arthritis, and shamed for a past scandal, Maud is treated as a black sheep by her family in the 1930s. She strikes out on her own, becoming a cleaning woman for a local fisherman, Everett (Ethan Hawke), in exchange for room and board. Everett is harsh and crude, and Maud isn't much of a cleaning woman, but the two learn to get along. And in the tiny shack they share, Maud finds the freedom to become the artist she always wanted to be.

"Maudie" is fairly minimalist film, and it's clear the production was a modest one with few frills. Maud and Everett's evolving relationship forms the backbone of the story, with Hawkins and Hawke both delivering excellent performances. There's a considerable physical element to both of them. Hawkins uses very limited, rigid movements to convey the extent of Maud's arthritis and other physical ailments. Hawk's Everett often seems to tower over her, every word coming out in a barking command, punctuated by rough, often violent action. It's fascinating to watch the two of them interact with each other, and with the rugged Nova Scotia environment.

Maud's paintings are all of the natural world around her, rendered in bright colors and simple forms. Likewise the movie only gives us a very abridged, simplified view of Maud's life, career, and relationships. It was mildly shocking to see photos of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film and discover that many of the events depicted actually happened when the couple was decades older than the actors portraying them ever appeared. And yet, I feel the actors did justice to The Lewises, capturing their odd, but very touching relationship. I saw "Maudie" quite some time ago and wasn't intending to write a review, but the film has stayed with me like few others have.

Another smaller 2017 film that hasn't gotten nearly the attention it should is Terence Davies' "A Quiet Passion," a character study of Emily Dickinson. It features a delightful performance by Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson, portrayed here as obstinate, temperamental, and incredibly sharp-minded and intelligent. The film dramatizes several incidents in her life that are meant to give possible insight into her prickly personality and reclusive behavior. And as with all Terence Davies films, there's no straightforward narrative here. Rather, the film unfolds as a series of vignettes that come one after the other in a loosely connected fashion. It feels appropriate, given the style of Dickinson's own writings.

Cynthia Nixon does remarkable work, showing us many different sides of Dickinson. Particularly important are her relationships with family members and friends, and her internal war with her own desires and nature. There's a fantastic scene where she turns away a potential admirer with cruelly cutting remarks, refusing to come downstairs to address him directly. The camera cuts between the action downstairs and a close-up of Nixon's face, revealing her emotional state as the situation becomes heated. There's also a fantastic sequence when Dickinson's health is in decline, where she grapples with her mortality.

It doesn't surprise me that audiences haven't been very receptive to "A Quiet Passion." It's a slow film, moody and atmospheric, and doesn't play by the rules of conventional Hollywood biopics. However, it's hard to imagine a better film about Emily Dickinson existing. There's an unusual authenticity to the production, from the filming taking place in a replica of Dickinson's actual family home, to the formality of the language, to the use of period photographs to show the progression of the Civil War instead of more cinematic recreations. Some viewers might find the approach stifling, but I couldn't be happier with the results.

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