The title character of Truman is neither the American president nor either of the two longtime best friends at the center of this lovely, melancholy/comic Spanish film. It’s an adorably ugly dog — a Bullmastiff — living with his master Julián (Ricardo Darín, of The Secret in Their Eyes) in Madrid.
An actor currently seducing women onstage as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, offstage Julián is quietly, quickly dying. He wants to end the cancer treatments that even his doctor admits are useless. That’s the situation when childhood friend Tomás (Javier Cámara, of Talk to Her) flies in from Canada at the behest of Julián’s cousin Paula, and decides not to try to talk Julián out of his end-of-life plans.
Instead, he makes the rounds — to the doctor’s office, to the vet — with Julián, who has the paradoxically jaunty demeanor of someone who knows these are his last days; he’s got nothing to lose. On the other hand, waves of grief sometimes ambush him. As he explains to Tomás, he has two children: one of them just happens to be a dog named Truman. The other is a college-age son named Nico (Oriol Pla), and the ways Julián tries to say goodbye to both of them forms the core of this wistful movie. It can move you by its decision not to punch emotional buttons as forcefully as a Hollywood film with the same plotline would. And the wise, weary rapport of Darín and Cámara makes you care deeply about their last days together.
The quietly passionate friendship in Truman is more memorable than just about anything in A Quiet Passion. The biopic is as focused on mortality as the Spanish film, but it hardly has a pulse, even before its heroine takes her final breath. For a movie that includes “quiet” in its title, it’s sure full of talk — as well as recitations of poems by its central figure, Emily Dickinson. As the hermetic muse of Amherst, actress Cynthia Nixon gives a performance of such direct emotional honesty, it only emphasizes the insufficiency of the movie’s other elements.
It’s probably not fair of me to even approach this film. It’s the latest from British writer-director Terence Davies (the shot-in-Georgia The Neon Bible, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea). While he’s some critics’ darling, he’s never been mine. I find him to be a damp, stultifying filmmaker who can suck life out of material that in another artist’s hands would feel entirely vital. Possibly his best work was his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Yet even that film, like his others, had an emotional lack of affect — as if the script had been translated phonetically to actors for whom English was a second language.
This strange emotional dislocation also afflicts A Quiet Passion. Davies wrote the script (save for the Dickinson poems, obviously), so he’s to blame for the sub-Wildean epigrams he puts in his characters’ mouths in the film’s first half. The biggest casualty is actress Catherine Bailey as a family friend named Vryling, who strolls around the Dickinsons’ house and grounds, spouting tin-eared quips about propriety and marriage. She’s awful, but the script is the problem.
The only reason to seek out Passion is to appreciate Nixon’s intense work as the strange, contradictory poet — both recluse and rebel, outspoken artist but obedient daughter to her stern attorney father (Keith Carradine). Nixon’s Emily wants to stand out, yet also vanish into the woodwork. Watch the hope, anxiety and exposure flicker across her face as she waits for a friend of the family to read her poems and deliver his verdict. She’s heartbreaking in her mix of fragility and steel. You understand both the love and frustration she inspires in her family, which includes sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle, very fine) and brother Austin (Duncan Duff, a little stiff).
Austin’s affair with a married woman gives the movie a welcome, belated dramatic jolt near the end. But the episode only underscores another wasted resource: the sympathetic Jodhi May, playing Austin’s wife, but given too little to do.
Dickinson could be the focus of any number of biographical approaches, because while we have her poems, the woman herself remains an enigma. There’s a great movie to be made about her. We still have to wait for it.
Here’s another movie next week that you may want to catch, presented by Out On Film outside the parameters of its annual festival (that will kick off again in the fall). The May 1 screening of the San Francisco-set comedy Pushing Dead is a fundraiser for both the festival and Living Room, which facilitates housing for individuals and families living with HIV/AIDS in Georgia.
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Feature at Frameline last year, Pushing Dead is the quirky tale of a blocked writer named Dan (James Roday, of Psych) who’s been living with HIV for 22 years. His health is fine, but his health care isn’t. When he deposits a $100 birthday check from his mom, the amount pumps his bank account above the cutoff mark for low-income insurance coverage. Yep, it’s an all-too-topical situation. While trying to untangle the red tape, Dan also addresses his intimacy issues, possibly via a sexy Brit (Tom Riley), who seems to turn up everywhere Dan does. The quirky comedy costars Robin Weigert as Dan’s supportive roommate, Danny Glover as the bar owner Dan works for and Khandi Alexander as Glover’s estranged wife. (Writer-director Tom E. Brown will attend the screening.)
Truman. With Ricardo Darín, Javier Cámara. Directed by Cesc Gay. In Spanish with subtitles. Unrated. 108 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
A Quiet Passion. With Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle. Written and directed by Terence Davies. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. At Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs.
Pushing Dead. A benefit for Out On Film and Living Room. Monday, May 1 at 7 p.m. at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Tickets are $11 for general admission and $25 for an after reception with writer-director Tom E. Brown.