British writer/director Terence Davies seems to have a preferred milieu in his films. Four of his six features are set in the 1940s and ’50s; two more reach back to the early 1900s. A Quiet Passion, about the life of Emily Dickinson, pushes the envelope a little further, chronicling the famous poet, who died in 1886.

“I don’t choose to stay in the past,” Davies remarks at the Toronto International Film Festival, where A Quiet Passion had its North American premiere. “But the things that I’ve warmed to and made films about are in the past. And I do think there’s a part of me that feels safest there.”

Davies often describes himself as a homebody, a trait that reached a kind of zenith in Dickinson. Though she left behind a huge body of work – nearly 1,800 poems, and volumes of correspondence – she rarely travelled more than a few kilometres from her home in Amherst, Mass., and in her later years lived as a virtual recluse.

“It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t go anywhere,” says Davies, pointing out that family can provide all the drama a life requires. “And even in a big family you can be lonely. I’m the youngest of 10, so I know what that’s like. I think the fact that she withdrew from the world heightened her poetry.”

To play Dickinson, Davies called on actress Cynthia Nixon, still best remembered for six seasons of Sex and the City. He says he never pictured anyone else in the part. But she was astonished, remembering an audition for him years earlier, for a film that never came together.

“He directed me so much in that audition that I could hardly get a line out; he would just stop me. I walked out of the audition thinking, ‘I didn’t do anything right,’ and then I didn’t hear from him for a number of years, and then he’d written a script for me where I play Emily Dickinson.” She dissolves into laughter at the memory. “It was baffling.”

Nixon, 51, plays Dickinson from young adulthood to her death at 55 of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment. “One of the most exciting things to do is to show how a character changes,” she says. “And I think she changes an awful lot.” Early scenes feature a “more rapturous, younger, in-love-with-nature Emily,” but Nixon found she became increasingly interested in the older, sometimes prickly Dickinson.

“I think it’s really brave of Terence that he gives her her due as an artist and as a person. Her last years were very painful, and he doesn’t shy away from that. It’s emblematic of Terence’s films that it’s not shot in soft focus with doilies around.”

“Geniuses are humans as well, and they’re not always honourable,” says Davies of the way he wrote the character for the film. And he’s clear that this is a subjective vision of the poet. He made some modifications in the timeline, turned two of Dickinson’s aunts into one, and cast the vivacious Catherine Bailey to play Dickinson’s close friend and fellow wit, Vryling Buffam.

She gets most of the film’s funniest lines, but in life, Buffam was a much more solemn figure. “I saw a picture of her, taken in her 40s, and she looked like a sideboard,” Davies giggles. “Never told a joke in her life.” But, he adds: “I wanted it to be sharp and clever. I didn’t want them to be solemn all the time. Dramatic truth isn’t the same as literal truth.”

Even so, Davies has remained mostly faithful to the details of Dickinson’s life, and started this project by reading a half-dozen fat biographies. Nixon read up on her as well, but had also studied the poet at school, and remembers a recording her family owned when she was a child, of actress Julie Harris reading selected poems and letters.

“They kind of were in my psyche,” she says, and is quick to reply when asked if she has a favourite. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died. And I cannot live with You. Those are my two favourites. They’ve always been my two favourites.”