Terence Davies on the Hugeness of a Confined Life in His Emily Dickinson Biopic, ‘A Quiet Passion’


Emily Dickinson’s religious skepticism, and refusal to give herself over to reverence to the unknowable, is well summed up in her lines: “‘Heaven’—is what I cannot reach!/The Apple on the Tree—/Provided it do hopeless—hang—/That—’Heaven’ is—to Me!” A Quiet Passion director Terence Davies — the blunt, clever filmmaker with a storytelling flair for introversion, whose own life as a gay, lapsed Catholic has pervaded both his films (particularly Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) and the discourse surrounding them — has seemingly found in Dickinson, or, perhaps, made in Dickinson, something of a kindred historical spirit.

Through Cynthia Nixon’s pairing of electrifying acerbity and frenetic interiority, A Quiet Passion depicts someone with the immense wit to skewer the whole world — and the immense sensitivity to retreat from elements of it — while vehemently embracing others. (Though Dickinson is often categorized as a recluse, the film insists on passion over bitterness, and an almost desperate love of family, despite simultaneous disdain.)

Davies, who seems exceedingly polite and generous in conversation, has also spoken with withering openness with interviewers about his alienation from Catholicism (from the New York Times: “Having been brought up a Catholic, I think death is preferable”) and sexuality (from the Guardian: “I have hated being gay, and I’ve been celibate for most of my life. Some people are just good at sex, and others aren’t; I’m one of them who isn’t. I’m just too self-conscious”). In his film, we see a character who refuses to kowtow to expectations of gender, sexuality, or religion (or of course, the intersection of the three) unless she can first have autonomy over them. In one scene, she will not kneel to God; in another, she refuses to come down the stairs to greet a suitor. In her poetry, she desirously, though agnostically, ponders both the place sex and God might have in her life — but ultimately retreats to devote herself to making that poetry. That, finally, is her religion and her passion.

Davies, with whom I spoke on the phone in advance of his film’s release, made A Quiet Passion on an exceedingly low budget, filming exterior shots at Dickinson’s own home (now a museum) in Amherst, MA, and the rest in a replica in Belgium. With very selective camera movement, shots mostly from within the inside of the remade Dickinson household, and hardly any non-diegetic music texturing the film, it relies solely on Cynthia Nixon’s delivery of Dickinson’s poetry for outside symbolic commentary on what you’re seeing. As such, Davies attempts a loud, deep immersion into the small, quiet physical world he posits Dickinson made around herself. It meanwhile reveals the immensity of her understanding of the world she shuts out, a perception more heightened than that of those who let it in.

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This is the second period piece you’ve done set in America, after The House of Mirth. As an American viewer myself, I find it almost disorienting seeing a drama about manners and upper middle class to high society done with American accents. Our own notions of the past — particularly the literary past — are very caught up in the stories and manners of England’s gentry. How did you work with actors to particularize speech to neither sound too contemporary in its Americanness, but also firmly of this place?

American English in the 19th century was very formal, because England was the dominant power, and you were imitating us; now it’s the complete reverse. The formality — just reading the biographies and extracts from the letters (I didn’t read all the letters; there just wasn’t time) — there is a formality about it. These people were particularly well educated. I also wanted it not to be solemn, so it wasn’t some 90-minute epic about someone who’s glum all the time; that’s just not interesting. I wanted it to be and feel like a sort of English they would have spoke.

Equally important: in period films, as soon as they start talking with a sort of modern gloss on it, I don’t believe it. They didn’t speak like that! And the way it looks, I said what’s got to be important is they’ve got to look as though they wear these clothes. In most period films they look as though they’ve just come from hair and makeup and costume. And you don’t believe. It’s got to look real.

There’s another layer, which is equally important. Is the texture of the mis en scène. That texture you don’t consciously notice, but you emotionally feel it. One of my templates was William Wyler’s The Heiress; they speak very formally in it. And they were clearly concerned with behavior and manners, but the father is very cruel in it — and cruel in a way that is almost polite, which makes the insult even worse. Those things were in my mind, and as I’m directing the actors, I say, ‘don’t act, I don’t want you to act.’ They do a lot of work on their own. Your job as the director is like conducting an orchestra. You have to make actors aware of the shape of the scene within the structure of the film. And sometimes when they’re really on the ball you don’t have to do anything, because you don’t want to spoil it. The important thing is that they do not act — I want them to be. Then it becomes interesting.

Speaking of which, Tom Hiddleston once said you conduct scenes like music. And Dickinson’s poetry is the most commonly set to music of any poet, ever. Was that part of your affinity for her? There are of course autobiographical components that you see as well — specifically relating to religion — but did your affinity with her start more with some quality of her work, or from her story?

It was both. And I have to say, unfortunately, the settings of the poems to song are always terribly forgettable. They really don’t work. I’ve never yet heard a version of them that I thought was convincing. Because the poems have their own musicality. There are certain poets that you can’t set to music, and I think she’s one of them. The music is in the poetry. So I wanted the poems here to work as music. It was important to hear them; what’s the point of doing the life of a poet if we never hear the poems? That would be pointless.

How did you work with Cynthia Nixon on the delivery of the poems?

She had known the poems through Julie Harris’ recording of them. And she also could recite pieces of them. She could read poetry — a lot of people can’t, but she can. One afternoon we worked on the soundstage, and she recorded them as a guide track, and that was what I used in the film! And she said, ‘when are we going to re-record them?’ I said, ‘We’re not going to; what you’ve done is so special. I don’t want to spoil it.’ So that was originally a guide track.

Your early work was more directly or visibly autobiographical, but the lens through which any person renders a life is that of their own worldview. How much mind did you want to pay that notion on this film? How much did you care about capturing some abstract idea of the essence of Emily Dickinson, versus wanting to find a marriage between yourself and someone mythologized by history who no one can get back to?

There were three things I responded to. One was she was taken away from Mount Holyoke because she was literally ill with homesickness. When I was a child, I had a chest infection and I was sent from Liverpool to North Wales to convalesce for a month, and I hated it. I just hated it! I knew what that felt like. But it was also her spiritual quest of the soul, and if there is or is not a God. I was brought up a strict Catholic, and was very fervent. For seven long years I fought doubt, until 22 I realized it was just a lie. So I know what that spiritual quest was like. And thirdly, I’m from a large working class family. Our family is very close — her family was very close. I didn’t want it ever to change. I wanted it to stay like that forever. And I think that was an element in her. Those were the three things that drew me to it.

Recent narratives of her life have discussed potential romances she may have had. Did it enter your mind to explore those? In the movie, she talks about turning to stone around men, but has this big line about not being interested if she can’t achieve equality. How could the idea that she may have had something of a romantic life have infiltrated the film, and why didn’t it?

There are only two ways to tell a story: one from the characters’ point of view, in which case anything they’re not privy to or don’t see can’t be included. The other was is camera as omniscient narrator — you can go anywhere. But once it’s down to someone’s point of view, then that narrows a lot of things down. I couldn’t have gone up the narrative cul-de-sac with her relationship to Susan [Gilbert, her sister-in-law] or the master letters. A.) there wasn’t time, and B.) to be honest, I didn’t think it was that interesting. I’d read notions that she might have had epilepsy or that she might have been lesbian, but I didn’t care. Those things were not interesting to me. What simply happens when you write something like this is I read an awful lot — and then I stopped reading. I couldn’t take in any more information. What rises up through that information are the things you want to make the film about.

You said in an interview with the New York Times you have focused on the way “memory instinctively goes from one important moment to another” throughout your films. But that’s something that’s really inherent in how biopics are structured — they jump between the big, “memorable” events in a life, but often gracelessly, and are prone to bad montages to indicate the passage of time. How did you approach the biopic to maintain this notion of memory and important moments, without creating a rote summary or employing trite ways of dealing with time?

I’ve always been interested in the way we perceive time: films are in the eternal present. I’m concerned most with the more interesting way of moving from one emotional point to the other. The emotions being the important steps within that story; I’ve always done it that way, even when my early work was rather crude. What I didn’t want was, “this happened, this happened, she didn’t get published, she died.” We know that. We explore her inner life, but that’s of course rich in incident and it’s rich in detail, so that’s what you concentrate on. I’ve always thought what’s more important are the small details — they tell you the larger picture. That’s why I love Chekhov. They’re all small things, but they’re big for the characters given their situation. I wanted to do the same with [A Quiet Passion], but integrating all of the poems that I love as well.

The one time you really make a huge jump in time is through the characters sitting for portraits, one by one, then aging into other actors. How did you decided on this technique? What did it mean for you to show the younger actors metamorphosing into the older cast, as opposed to cutting into them?

I was searching for a way to do it. I looked at photographs of the family. I thought there was something there that perhaps I could do something with; though I don’t know where the idea came from, of them morphing into the new cast. It just happened — but it also had to be cheap. I couldn’t do anything expensive. I didn’t have a big budget, so something succinct was more powerful. And when you just cut to older actors, there’s something missing in the cut. And I thought, “It’s got to be that they really do appear to become these other people.”

The house itself plays such an immense role for the Dickinson character — across the film you get the sense that she herself is becoming the house. There’s an exterior shot, after her father dies, but you see her inside, crying from inside the window, and she looks like she’s become part of the architecture. Or there’s that scene where we see her watching music play at a party from behind a crack in the door. The smaller and more stuck she gets, the bigger the emotional weight.

In a small confined space — we were in a very small house, with nine of us — every small thing becomes heightened. Arguments become very heightened, people being offended become very heightened. All those things that are inner. I think Emily’s afraid of the world. And I think unconsciously, when she came back from seminary she was obviously ecstatic because she hated being away. But suddenly the family’s changing. [Her father] dies. Her brother will get married. Mother will die. What was a haven has become a prison and it’s too late to do anything about it. She was afraid of the world, and it wasn’t just shyness; she had one layer missing, one skin missing, and for people like that the world is hard and frightening. And also underneath that runs this constant theme of the soul and what is the nature of that soul and does it completely die when we die if there is a God or if there isn’t? She never ever says, “there isn’t a God — yes there is” — she always implies a hope; and even when she’s challenged by Vinnie [her sister, Lavinia Dickinson], Vinnie says, “you are God’s property,” and she says, “but if he exists, he will know my struggle and be merciful, and if he does not exist, I will be eternally free.”

A Quiet Passion is out in U.S. theaters tomorrow, April 14.