T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets
"He speaks of “sea bells”, in The Dry Salvages, bells we don’t hear. But we discern gulls instead."

There has always been something otherworldly about TS Eliot, a spectral quality deeply in accord with cinema. Francis Ford Coppola knew to include in Apocalypse Now (1979) a scene in which Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) reads parts of Eliot’s The Hollow Men, that in the epigraph (“Mistah Kurtz – he dead”) quotes Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the basis of the film. Dennis Hopper, playing the photojournalist, paraphrases the poem’s famous last line.

Sophie Fiennes’ superb and faithful capturing of her brother Ralph Fiennes’ stage production of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets yields wonderfully thoughtful camera movements and angles (cinematography by Mike Eley) and also takes us out of the theater space (production design by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Tim Lutkin) to breathe the same landscapes Eliot so unmatchedly described in Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding. He was always already there. “And there is only the dance” we catch and see a wall in a garden in the fall. “Only through time time is conquered” says the voice and speaks of “this twittering world” to provide the relevance to the present with an extra prescient punchline.

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A product of the Second World War, the four-part poem reads as timely as ever. Ralph Fiennes in his staging gives us light, a table, two chairs; he is barefoot and breathing. Before anything in Burnt Norton, he sits in silence, then dives into “Time present and time past” which “are both perhaps present in time future”. The way he articulates the line about “disturbing the dust in a bowl of rose-leaves” had me convinced that these words were never there before. I went and checked in the book to find them, again certain that Eliot’s witchcraft was at work. Because the poems are unwilted and feel fresh every time.

Seven cows in a meadow - East Coker - the beginning of the second quartet - “My beginning is my end.” Ralph Fiennes stretches out his arm as though to reach that other point in time - whichever one it is. The seasons are changing and the climate change of the 2020s is already present in line with the houses “all gone under the sea.” The darkness and the rivers are ours still. Fiennes rocks back and forth in a state of hospitalism. Suddenly he seems to be on a boat - “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” The refugees and the changing weather patterns all put in an appearance.

He speaks of “sea bells”, in The Dry Salvages, bells we don’t hear. But we discern gulls instead. “Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.” And then directly to the camera, to us: “These are only hints and guesses / Hints followed by guesses; and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” The rocks at night, the trees, birdsong, maybe two cows in the distance ground it all.

April has always been Eliot’s month, not merely “the cruellest”, but obviously the one where nature is stirring greatly in our climates. Nobody reaches his heights in describing landscapes and their seasons. Eliot is casting a spell right now, as last year celebrated the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land and Four Quartets turns 80 this year. In the far-sighted and sharp-witted documentary The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, Sophie Fiennes, together with Slavoj Žižek, explored the “inertia of the Real” and its fascination, a concept certainly evoked by Eliot.

For Little Gidding, the fourth quartet, we enter a small chapel. The seasons once more entrust us with a surplus of what we can grasp. “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always.” Any line is more and more. And without intention, your mind enters Eliot time and Eliot reasoning and a renewed sense emerges from vintage thoughts.

Earth Day 2023 just came and passed this weekend and the deaths of air, earth, water and fire Eliot evokes are more threatening than ever. The Fiennes siblings with this film tote a precious gift of T.S. Eliot’s wisdom, presented with fire and a rose.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2023
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T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets packshot
In the shadow of the Second World War, performance of a poem is a searching examination of who and what we are. A journey into the imagination, bound by experience, memory and time.
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Director: Sophie Fiennes

Writer: TS Eliot

Starring: Ralph Fiennes

Year: 2022

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: UK


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