British director Terence Davies has long been praised for his poetic, lyrical films, including 1992's autobiographical The Long Day Closes, 2000's Edith Wharton novel adaptation The House of Mirth and last year's Sunset Song, based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Scottish novel. Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that the openly gay Davies has crafted another masterpiece with A Quiet Passion, his biopic on poet Emily Dickinson.
The New Yorker's Richard Brody proclaimed Passion "an absolute drop-dead masterwork" after seeing it at February's Berlin Film Festival, and Cynthia Nixon proves to be a revelation as Dickinson. It's not exactly a spoiler, but her final stretch, as Dickinson succumbed to grueling illness at age 55, entails one of the most visceral, heart-wrenching passages committed to modern cinema.
"What we don't understand these days, because we have so many drugs to kill pain, is they had nothing," a perky Davies explained. "With the exception of laudanum, a kind of opiate to which you could become addicted, if you had a serious illness you were in pain all the time and had to endure it. Emily had Bright's disease, which is a disease of the kidneys, although she actually died of congenital heart failure. It was a painful death, and there was no palliative medicine at the end of life, you just had to endure it until you diednd that was a constant throughout the 19th century."
A Quiet Passion begins during the mid-1800s, when the teenaged Dickinson ( Emma Bell ), a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, decides to take up poetry. Obtaining the permission of her father, Edward ( Keith Carradine ), to write during evenings, she later gets publishedbut is told that women cannot reach the same literary heights as men. Once Nixon steps in as the adult Dickinson, we trace her relationships with best friend Vryling Buffum ( Catherine Bailey ), younger sister Lavinia ( Jennifer Ehle ) and brother Austin ( Duncan Duff ); romantic longing for a married, emotionally unavailable Reverend ( Eric Loren ); spiritual crises; and, eventually, illness.
Dickinson only became known to the world after her death and, in fact, almost 2,000 poems, bound in some 40 volumes, were discovered after she passed:Oonly a handful or two were published while she lived. Today, she is a household name.
Despite the bleak aspects of Dickinson's life, Davies mines humor from the patriarchal stuffiness and formality of the era. Edward, a comparative progressive for the time and one-term Congressman, balks at the shocking spectacle of a woman who dares to sing during a night at the theater. "A gift is no excuse for a female to exhibit herself in that way," he clucks. Davies also keeps things light with zingy, aphorism-rich dialogue that falls somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Whit Stillman.
"I didn't want it all to be solemn," Davies said. "I want it to be fun as well."
Davies adds that shooting the film in Antwerp, Belgium ( standing in for 19th-century Massachusetts ) proved a personal joy. Despite a professed distaste for Sex and the City, he envisioned Nixon as his dream Dickinson from the get-go. "I just disagree with its subtext," he confessed about the HBO show and movie series, "that all you do is go to bed with people and buy things and then eat. I find that rather bleak. I have only watched it once. I just wanted to see Cynthia's reaction shots, which were always the truest. But I do disapprove of it!"
The actress had previously been attached to another film Davies hoped to mount some years back; however, financing never materialized. Her likeness to Dickinson and a mutual fondness for the poet's work ( Davies incorporated some of Dickinson's poetry into his 2008 cinematic ode to Liverpool, Of Time And The City ) sealed the deal, and he wrote the script during 2012 with her specifically in mind.
In whittling down the events and people from Dickinson's life to form a two-hour movie that nonetheless covers a lot of ground and years, Davies' script ended up with hefty autobiographical elements from his own life. ( His agent told him it's his most autobiographical work yet, and Davies agrees. ) Like Dickinson, he was extremely close to his family members: As a youth was sent away to a school and suffered a deep homesickness, and they both struggled with spirituality.
"She was fierce in protecting her soul, but what comes across in the poetry is, what if you have a soul and there is no God?" Davies said. "What do you do? I was a very devout Catholic and, from age 15 to 22, I had my doubts. In those days you were told it was the work of the devil, and I fought with that for seven years. At 22, I didn't need it anymore."
However, Davies said the film is ultimately "a fictitious version of her life through my subjective prism, so you may not necessarily agree with it. You could only respond to those things in someone's life that have echoes of you. She had a correspondence with someone named the Master and nobody knows who it was. She improvised on the piano. All those things you cannot keep, because we are contractually obliged to bring in a movie of less than two hours."
The same rules apply to another biopic about British poet Siegfried Sassoonwho was also gay and a WWI heroand Davies just completed a draft of it. "Anybody who was anybody in the 20th century, he met!" Davies said with a laugh. "He knew everybody! So that's going to be played down; otherwise, it becomes name-dropping."
Like countryman Ridley Scott ( The Martian, Alien: Covenant ), Davies is proving quite prolific as a septuagenarian ( he's 71 ), with an adaptation of Richard McCann's 2005 autobiography, Mother of Sorrows, also in the works ( and which may feature Paul Dano ). However, the dryly self-deprecating Davies noted that, while international acclaim is coming his way these days, he's not holding out hopes for a boyfriend, even despite a wave of popularity for "daddies" and websites and apps designed to connect them.
"Sex with a 71-year-old is too close to necrophilia for my taste," he said, laughing. "I've been celibate since 1980. But I'm not physically attractive, I never was. Young, good-looking and very stupidthat's a combination nobody else will beat!"
A Quiet Passion will be shown Monday, April 3, at 7 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; visit www.poetryfoundation.org/programs/events/detail/92566. It will be released in select theaters on Friday, April 14.