Two films opening today (Friday, May 12) in D.C. theaters are worthy but achieve different levels of effectiveness for varying reasons.
“A Quiet Passion,” playing at the Avalon Theatre, is a beautiful, moving and thought-provoking new film that captures the historic meeting of three geniuses: the great American poet Emily Dickinson, the award-winning openly lesbian actor Cynthia Nixon (Broadway’s “Angels in America” and HBO’s “Sex and the City”) and the acclaimed English writer and director Terence Davies, who has been openly gay since the 1970s.
Written and directed by Davies, “A Quiet Passion” is the school-to-grave story of the reclusive poet whose work was largely unknown until after her death. It opens when young Emily (well played by Emma Bell) is asked to leave the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for her unorthodox religious thinking and closes as her casket is driven to the cemetery while an off-screen Nixon beautifully intones “Because I could not stop for Death.”
Davies is an auteur at the top of his cinematic game. Working closely with cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, costumer Catherine Marchand, and a superb cast, he reminds us that the past in indeed a different country, and that Dickinson was a product of that time, even as she rebelled against it.
The overall arc of Davies’ remarkable movie is Dickinson’s gradual withdrawal from society. She starts out as a young, vivacious woman strolling through sunlit streets, wearing beautiful clothes, trading witty banter with family and friends and wielding a ferocious fan. But, gradually, as friends move away, family members die and her own body betrays her, she becomes the iconic spinster dressed in white and speaking to visitors only from the shadows from the first-floor landing on the stairs. Nixon’s passionate nuanced prickly performance is simply amazing.
While “A Quiet Passion” will, unfortunately, probably not become required viewing in high school English classes, it is definitely required viewing for all fans of great literature and great cinema. It is a meeting of great minds and great hearts.
It’s a good thing that ”3 Generations,” screening at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, is finally getting a general release. After its premiere at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival (under the title “About Ray”), the producers cancelled the scheduled release of the film in the wake of weak reviews.
The revamped film is finally being released and is well worth-seeing. Ray (Elle Fanning) lives with his mother Maggie (Naomi Watts), his lesbian grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) and Dolly’s long-term girlfriend Frances (Linda Emond). He is in the process of transitioning and wants to start hormone therapy. To do so, since he is 16, he needs the legal permission of his parents. And that’s where the drama starts.
Craig (Tate Donovan) has been out of the picture for 10 years and Maggie is reluctant to reestablish contact (and has her own doubts about signing the papers). The quest for Craig’s signature reveals some long-hidden family secrets as well as the central problem with the movie.
The movie isn’t really about Ray; it’s about Maggie and the revelation of her turbulent past. Ray is a sympathetic character, but he’s basically on hold until he can start his treatments. Maggie is the character in motion, and the character who links the three fascinating generations. It’s a shame writer and director Gaby Dellal and co-writer Nikole Beckwith didn’t get a chance to do a rewrite at the beginning of shooting instead of a reedit after the film’s premiere.
Nonetheless, what’s there is quite good. The film is a powerful affirmation of Ray’s decision to pursue his true identity in the face of both beatings by bullies and uneven support from his family (Dolly asks why “she” can’t just be a lesbian). The acting is strong and the camera work by David Johnson is striking.
But most importantly, the moving conclusion of “3 Generations” is a great testimony to the courage shown by Ray and his extended family. That’s what makes this movie important and timely.