Soul of a Poet: Terence Davies' 'A Quiet Passion' explores the world of Emily Dickinson

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When A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ delicately nuanced and moving biography of reclusive poetess Emily Dickinson, was presented at 2016’s New York Film Festival, the British writer-director himself took to the stage of the Walter Reade Theater and told the packed house of his two hopes for the picture. One, he said, “I hope after you’ve seen it, it will make you go out and read her,” and two, “I hope, if she’s out there somewhere, she’s looking down and thinking, ‘I feel a poem coming on.’”

That is indeed possible, since A Quiet Passion (opening on April 14 from Music Box Films) is such a poetical meeting of minds. The two are one. Florian Hoffmeister’s exquisite and precise cinematography blurs the line between the not-nearly-lauded-enough 71-year-old filmmaker and the 19th-century poetess who was never properly appreciated in her lifetime. (Only seven of her 1,800 verses were in print when she died, painfully, of kidney failure at age 55.)

Davies believes he was drawn to Dickinson “because I share the same fear of the world. Emily was an ordinary human, but she happened to be a genius. She was, in a way, an outsider, and I’ve always been an outsider. I haven’t been a participant in life. I’ve always been an observer. I wouldn’t do anything adventurous or dangerous. I’ve never taken drugs. I’m too afraid and far too timid. I know what that feels like.”

The net effect of leading these cautious, introspective lives has sealed both off from the fame they’ve earned. “The fact that she was not recognized in her own lifetime—that more than anything else—moved me. She deserved to be better known. It’s wonderful poetry. I think she’s the greatest American poet of the 19th century.”

A Quiet Passion is Davies’ first official biopic, but his first five steps into cinema were famously autobiographical films about growing up in Liverpool in the ’40s and ’50s—the youngest child in a working-class Catholic family of ten—spending a mean and actively detested decade of his youth crunching numbers in a shipping office before bolting for Coventry Drama School and a life better spent doing truthful, artful films.

He started small as a filmmaker with Children, a 1976 short that introduced his alter ego, Robert Tucker, whose miserable existence as an accounting clerk got recounted in the 1980 feature Madonna and Child, and whose death was imagined three years later in Death and Transfiguration. Individually—and collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy—they were award winners and led to his most critically cheered films on his childhood, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992).

After Davies stopped using facsimiles of himself as his film centerpieces and threw the spotlight to female stars, his and their acclaim jumped markedly: his as a latter-day George Cukor especially skilled at directing actresses, and theirs as darlings of the New York Film Critics Circle. When he adapted Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000) for Gillian Anderson and Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2011) for Rachel Weisz, Anderson finished second—and Weisz first—as their Best Actress.

This gender-switch he credits to his cinematic upbringing. “When I was growing up, all the big hits of the period were all about women—Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, etc. All that I grew up with.”

Cynthia Nixon’s smart, starchy, compassionate depiction of Dickinson could, and should, continue that tradition. Davies’ empathy for the character is as pronounced and persuasive as his earliest films. “In fact, my manager said, ‘This is the most autobiographical film you’ve made’—and I think, to a certain extent, that’s true.

“What moves me always is when people have been given a lousy hand of cards, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll go with it.’ My mother did that, and it didn’t get on better, but she didn’t ever despair. Neither does Emily, although, God knows, she has much to despair about. She becomes, as far as I’m concerned, a bit embittered about her not being published, but there’s something so utterly true about her. I love her poetry.”

Emily Dickinson entered Davies’ awareness when he was 18 via the telly. “Claire Bloom was reading her poems, and the first she read was ‘Because I could not stop for death, he came and stopped for me.’ I ran out and bought it. Then, about six years ago, I started rereading the poems and realized how wonderful they are. I wanted to know more about her, so I read six biographies. Then, I was really intrigued.

“Here’s this woman who withdraws from the world, writes wonderful poetry and has this extraordinary inner life. You don’t have to go out and look for an inner life. You can stay in one place. I was touched by her spiritual quest. She oscillates between ‘Is there a God?’/‘Is there not a God?’ or ‘Is there a soul?’/’Is there not a soul?’ ‘If there’s a soul and there’s not a God, what do you do?’ I had that crisis when I was a Catholic. I was very devout till I was 22, so that was something I related to.”

Needless to say, being the first he heard, Dickinson’s meditation on death was the first he filmed. Another must: “My letter to the world.” “As you write the narrative, it tells you, ‘No, that poem is better there.’ If you listen to the material, it will tell you what to do because content always dictates form—never the other way around.”

You’d have to go back to Howards End to find a more loving, meticulous recreation of time past. The devil—and Davies’ own childhood memories—are in the details.

“The film captures minor pleasures. I grew up in poverty, but the parlor in the front room was always kept just so. In the September term, when I got home from school, it was always dark, but the fire was lit. We only had very cheap furniture, but the furniture was reflected in the flames. My mother had a little pot of tea waiting for me and some toast. It was so unbelievably rich! I remember looking around, seeing my family, and I thought, ‘That’s simply what you should do here, just look around and see them, just being, that’s all.  When the 360-degree pan ends, something’s died in you because you’ve realized this will go. It won’t stay. Only the memory stays.

“I was like that as a child. I thought my family would be like that forever and ever. I think because she needed the family so desperately, Emily was terrified when it began to disintegrate—all families do—and yet still she produces poetry of the most wonderful resignation but not despair. She never gives up. I love that about her.”

After digesting the half-dozen Dickinson biographies, Davies started shaping her life story into a screenplay he wanted to tell. As a kind of preamble to the dangers of too much nonconformist spunk and intelligence in her latter life, he introduces us to the teenage Emily (played by Emma Bell) running afoul of authority at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her genius can’t be reined in, so the grown Emily (Nixon) rarely ventures far from her immediate family fold. It’s headed by a ramrod-hard disciplinarian of a father (Keith Carradine, sounding a tad Clifton Webb-ish in his overly precise pronunciations). Jennifer Ehle is her patient, understanding sister, who spends much of her time negotiating the inflexible Emily’s way in the world.

The withering Wilde-like wit here is wielded by one Vryling Buffam, a friend of Emily’s who talks as modern as young ladies got in those days but eventually settles for domesticity. Catherine Bailey runs off with every one of her scenes playing her.

Emily’s raging internal love for a married reverend (Eric Loren) never breaks out into the open, making her especially unforgiving of her brother's infidelity. Ultimately, Davies’ script is skimpy on incident and throbbing with character.

“It usually takes over a year to write a screenplay,” he estimates. “The first draft always takes the longest because I write in longhand. Then, I get notes for the second draft and more notes for the third draft. Then, I do a polish and shoot that.

“Everything is in it because, if you’ve got a small amount of money, you’ve got to husband it. You’ve got to be able to say, ‘On this day, I will crane’ or ‘On that day, I will need 25 extras.’ You’ve just got to do it. When you say, ‘This is the shooting script, and this is what you’ll shoot,’ that’s exactly what you do. Sometimes, it happens where you’ve got to change it—and that’s just sheer luck.”

Most of the 19th-century New England Americana was duplicated in Belgium, of all places. Why there? “Because they gave us very good tax breaks,” Davies beams proudly. “They rebuilt the house—including rooms that we didn’t shoot in.”

He did a little shooting around the original Dickinson estate at Amherst and was disappointed at its upkeep. “I thought, ‘Well, why aren’t these very rich Americans lining up to give lots of money for that? After all, Emily was a major artist. If that house had been in England, it would have been kept perfect, I assure you!”

If you exclude the Tony-winning Julie Harris, it’s hard to imagine a better physical and emotional facsimile of Emily Dickinson than Nixon. She entered the picture in a very oblique fashion, auditioning for Davies for a picture than never came to pass.

“A few years after that,” the actress recalls, “I received this amazing script, and Terence was asking me to play Emily Dickinson. I was completely overwhelmed, but I was less overwhelmed than I might have been because I kept thinking, ‘Well, now, that’s a very nice idea that will never happen. I’ll take it as a compliment, and I’ll always have that to keep in my pocket and just sort of rub it when I feel a bit blue.’

“But he pulled it off. I do feel I’m a natural choice to play Emily Dickinson. I’m a big fan of hers, as was my mother, so I grew up with her in the house, with Julie Harris’ The Belle of Amherst and another record of her reading some of Emily’s most famous poems and better-known letters. We listened to them a lot, so it penetrated my consciousness. There’s a way that great writing you actually hear over and over again gets in your brain more than if you read it on the page. As a young person, I identified with her shyness and how she felt there were great worlds inside her if only someone would take the trouble to go over and peer in. I felt that as a kid.”

One of Davies’ producers peered in and found the Emily they were looking for. “He showed me a picture of Cynthia at 17,” said Davies. “She looked exactly like her. I saw that face as I wrote the script. If she’d said no, I have no idea who I’d have cast—but she said yes. She stuck with this for four years and was very loyal to the project.”

All that, and she was great to work with, Davies confirms. “What was really lovely was her saying, ‘Can I say this word instead of that?’ It was so touching. I said, ‘Of course, you can.’

“To call what she does acting, in a way, demeans it. She just is Emily. I say to all my actors on every film, ‘I don’t want you to act—I want you to feel it.’ Then, it’s real.”