For A Quiet Passion, the first
biographical film about the great 19th-century poet and American
literary icon Emily Dickinson, it took an outsider to capture her
The poet, who dressed
all in white and gardened by moonlight (and wrote the words “I’m
nobody! Who are you?”) was virtually unknown during her lifetime, but
now enjoys a towering posthumous reputation. (When Bob Dylan won the
Nobel Prize for literature last year, for instance, his lyrics were
compared to Dickinson’s poetry.)
Yet Dickinson herself remains an enigmatic figure, one that A Quiet Passion star Cynthia Nixon has described as “the patron saint of shyness.”
prismatic and slippery Dickinson – variously wry, girlish, insolent,
wistful and terse – does indeed exist in her work, and in Terence
Davies’s film, too. The new drama from the English director is a richly
detailed biographical portrait. It is unusual and, like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie,
it is not, strictly speaking, a biopic, but a film that harnesses the
disarming power of Dickinson’s work in elliptical episodes. But then,
Davies’s 2008 collage documentary Of Time and the City isn’t a
traditional documentary, either – at the time, Davies called his film of
hometown Liverpool “a subjective essay” based on his emotional
In the narration of that
film, Davies reads Dickinson’s poem 301 (“I reason, Earth is short/And
Anguish – absolute”). He first read Dickinson at 18, he says, but when
he picked her up again in earnest and in his rereading, “I wondered, and
wanted to know her.” (He finds solace in poetry, in general: He usually travels with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Shakespeare’s sonnets for company, and is working on a screenplay about the poet Siegfried Sassoon.)
structures the screenplay in loosely chronological episodes, beginning
with teenage Dickinson’s stint in a women’s seminary in the 1840s, a
time essential to her life and to the film for establishing “where she
stands in terms of her soul, and her attitude towards God and set
religion,” Davies, 71, explained last fall, on the eve of A Quiet Passion’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“The rest of it has to be structured so we move through that quest – and it’s a constant quest – for God and the soul.”
rebellious loner (she refuses to kneel in prayer), Dickinson
progressively narrows the scope of her daily activities until she lives
in near-total seclusion.
she went home is she was homesick, such terrible homesickness that
almost made her ill,” Davies says, quoting her line from the film: “I
don’t want anything but my family. It’s not perfect, but it’s all I could want or know.”
says he knows what those family dynamics are like, since he comes from a
large family himself, “but what was extraordinary is that she retreats
into it and in a way wants the family to remain like that and never
Of course that can’t happen in real life – the only time that happens is in Meet Me in St. Louis.”
writing his film, Davies had to figure out what of her writing to leave
out. “She wrote three volumes of letters alone. She wrote every day.
She wrote 1,808 poems! She didn’t have time to go out,” he says with a
All this, from a small table
in her upstairs corner bedroom at her homestead in Amherst, Mass. – the
same house where Dickinson was born and died; and in between, lived
stitching her poems into packets.
Accordingly, the film threads her poetry into her life.
the film, specific shots are carefully timed not to the beats of the
score but to the contours of Dickinson’s verse. “The poetry is the
music,” Davies says.
So the line “The
dying need but little, dear” is recited in tandem with the funeral of
Dickinson’s beloved father; “Thunderbolt to your soul” is adjacent to
another dramatic life event, and “We outgrow love like other things, and
put it in a drawer” after a wedding.
Davies knew that he wanted to save “This is my letter to the world” for the very end, even though it’s not a late-period poem.
scholars and the many biographies of her (Davies has read six) continue
to speculate about the reasons for her self-confinement – that she was
traumatized by an ill-fated romance, or was bipolar, or agoraphobic, or
pragmatic about how time-consuming niceties of social calls would take
away time she could be devoting to her writing. “I don’t think it was
that at all – I think it was much more profound,” Davies says. “I think
she is terrified of the world.”
“And I think she’s an observer,” he adds. “She’s not a participant. That’s where her genius lies.”
writes about the isolating power of sadness, and Davies found an
affinity there, too. The parallels to the contemporary condition of
detachment are especially resonant, with people’s connections to one
another often tethered through smartphones and other devices.
absolutely hopeless at [technology] but I do understand what she feels
about being an outsider, because I’m not a participant either,” he says.
an outsider. I’ve never done anything adventurous – I’ve never gone
across India with only £5 in my pocket, or taken drugs, because I’m just
too frightened. Most of my life I’ve spent alone and celibate. That’s
not much fun.
“Unfortunately when you are an outsider and an observer you never fully become part of life.”
A Quiet Passion opens April 14 in Toronto.
Read more here.