First up on my second day, A QUIET PASSION, Terence Davies’s film about Emily Dickinson, showing in the new ‘pop-up’ cinema in the Embankment Gardens down from Charing Cross. A fine structure it is too, well raked (unlike last night’s ICA, where reading subtitles meant dodging your head around the similarly bobbing and weaving head in front), big and comfortable with a spacious foyer providing free iced water, very welcome on this warm October day. The only drawback, if it is, is the intrusive sound of the outside world: traffic sirens, aircraft, and the occasional clatter of a helicopter – the later actually pointing up in a positive way, in fact, the oppressive silences of Emily Dickinson’s enclosed life. After a promising beginning with the spirited Emily and her loving family full of irreverence and wit, her life, and along with it the film, stumble into what becomes something of a monotonous endurance test. Trapped in a provincial, god-fearing household that has lost its youthful zing, writing her poems at dead of night and stitching them into little books, the lively girl for who once declared ‘family is enough’ becomes a bitter and resentful woman.
Celia Nixon is excellent as Emily, a carefully balanced mixture of the vulnerable and the headstrong, self-aware but also self deluding and at times dislikeable. While Davies captures the cornered, repressed life conveyed in her poetry so well, the script is increasingly arch and self-conscious, strangely reminiscent of Walt Stillman’s recent hilarious Love and Friendship, but too stilted to be funny, particularly in the scenes with smart-as-a-whip best pal Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who suddenly pops up from a life beyond Amherst. But Vryling, emancipated though she is, is soon to marry and leave, and the unanswered thought does cross the mind that if she can find a life in the wider world, why can’t Emily? The attempt to bring in some kind of feminist strand here feels clumsily grafted on and a distraction, leading to such gnomic and unlikely statements as ‘any argument about gender is also about war, because it is about slavery’, and the film loses much of its power in the long, static sequences of Emily’s disconsolate middle age, visually beautiful though it is. Davies has the camera sweep around those little rooms at Amherst, as he did in the working class Liverpool interiors of his early films, across faces and furniture and all the dark corners, no bolt holes or ways of escape. And the physical processes of pain and death, a great preoccupation of Emily’s, are frighteningly portrayed. But there’s little sign of the innovative, dazzling quality of so much of her work – with her self-imposed reclusiveness and rudeness, lots of the time I’m afraid she’s just tiresome and not interesting.
Much is redeemed, though, in the final sequence as her coffin make its journey from her home/prison to the churchyard and its grave, all tracked from high above, to the words of her poem ‘Because I would not stop for death…’ But it’s a relief afterwards to get back to the real stuff, the poems, and see how they dazzle.
Next, across the footbridge to the BFI, dodging the selfie sticks, the appalling/gorgeous view of the City curving round to the left in the sun. The tables at the chain restaurants along the South Bank are packed out, and a proper English bulldog is being fed a hamburger beside a fastfood van, surrounded by marvelling tourists.
DEAREST SISTER, is by female US-born Laotian director Mattie Do, the first female Laotian director to make a full-length feature (her previous Chantaly), and this is the first Laotian film to be shown at a festival outside its own country. Described rather misleadingly as a horror movie, it is much more than that, touching on colonialism, corruption, problems of poverty and status, and with its subtle character development more striking than its supernatural and violent aspects. Nok (Amphaiphoon Phomapunya) is a poor village girl who goes to the city to become companion of a wealthy distant cousin Ana, who is going blind. She’s treated well by Ana and her European husband (Tambet Tuisk), inhabiting an uneasy position between the servants (who resent her) and the smooth social life of her cousin. But no one is as straightforward as they seem, with the husband involved in dodgy dealings with NGOs, the servants full of dark feelings, and Nok herself more complex than her innocent facade implies, leading to a pleasing destabilising of one’s expectations. You’re soon also shaken up by the introduction of the supernatural, all the more creepy because it is presented as an almost run-of-mill occurrence. Do is good at cranking up the unease, leading to an ending that is as unexpected as it is nasty.
My two remaining films of the day are both Spanish, at one of the most comfortable cinemas in London, the Cine Lumière at the French Institute in South Kensington. THE REUNION (La Reconquista) is by Jonas Trueba, whose first feature, Los Ilusos (The Wellwishers) seen here 3 years ago, was a charming if overlong almost documentary style look at a group of young people enjoying being young in Madrid. This, his third tale of a similar group, and again starring Francesco Carril, looks at love among the thirty-somethings, as Olmo’s settled life is thrown slightly adrift by the return of his teenage love Manuela (Itsaso Arana) from Argentina. Again it’s quite indulgent, but impossible to dislike, with some funny and some melancholy moments as the pair comes to terms with the passing of time, and change. The overlong coda which takes us back in time to their teenage relationship doesn’t really work or add anything. How much better would have been a far shorter film, ending with a lyrical sequence as we watch Olmo drive his scooter back home through the early morning streets.
I had great hopes that the final film of the night, from by Alberto Rodriguez, the director who made the excellent thriller Marshlands last year, would be another film of beauty, depth and mystery, but SMOKE AND MIRRORS (El hombre de las mil caras), though an excellent film itself turned out to be a different kettle of fish altogether. Based on the true story of Spanish secret agent Paco Pasa, it takes us through multiple hoops of intrigue, as Pasa gets drawn into the corrupt dealings of a major politician. Rodriguez excels at storytelling, the careful dropping of hints and loose ends that don’t get gathered up until we’ve forgotten about them, double- and triple-crossings, the unlikely characters, but all the time keeping the excellent Edward Fernández as Pasa both superhumanly wily as well as very humanly vulnerable. And it’s fun.