Terence Davies read six Emily Dickinson biographies before writing and directing a film about the 19th century poet. He shaped the screenplay for A Quiet Passion, his new biopic about her life opening in Bay Area theaters on May 5, from her poems that question the existence of God. Davies, a lapsed Catholic, believes that the work he responded to most was about "the nature of the soul and how you keep it in good order.” If you leave the theater convinced Dickinson was a saint, it won’t be because of her skill at genuflection. It is her lifelong, unreserved struggle with and against her faith that Davies zeroes in on.
Speaking over the phone, Davies identifies the fundamental question in Dickinson's poetry as: “Is there a God, is there not?”
“I don't think she's ever sure," he says. "She always manages to steer a path between those two extremes and always manages to imply some sort of hope that there might be.” But not without a great deal of self-denial and suffering. The language in her poems seethes with inner conflict. It’s there trapped inside her abrupt syntax, in the juxtaposition of unlikely nouns and adverbs, in the stark imagery that depicts a soul’s estrangement from its physical host, the body.
Her great rebellion begins in the movie’s first scene, set at -- what was in the 1800s -- the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. Confronted by the headmistress in front of her peers, Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon) refuses to be conscripted into religious subservience. “She wouldn't allow anybody to tell her on a spiritual level, the level of the soul, what to do," Davies says. "Because, as she says, ‘This is my soul, it's mine.’"
“That level of her wanting to protect her soul makes life that much more difficult," Davies says of her resistance. "It made it even harder I think for her to interact in the real world because, like all geniuses, she has a skin missing.”
And the real world increasingly fades away in A Quiet Passion. Freed from the constraints of school, Dickinson returns to her father's home in Amherst and asks him for permission to write during the middle of the night, a habit she never grows out of. Davies creates a hushed and humid atmosphere for these candlelit vigils. The poet's imagination, which flourishes in this heavy weather, also betrays her isolation. But the director goes on to find a more striking visual equivalent for her condition of spiritual unease.
As she sits alone at her desk in darkness, Davies’ camera moves from the front door up the stairs to her bedroom as Nixon's voice intones, “The looming man. Please let him come before the afterlife. Please let him not forget me.” The poet’s sense of suspense, of morbid anticipation, is, of course, a delusion. No one’s coming to see her, not even this version of God. But Nixon’s face registers fulfillment enough in just the fantasy.
“It's very significant that she calls him the looming man. The ‘looming’ has a menace to it," Davies says. "It's a very curious word for someone to use. I wanted to make it abstract and in fact it's shot at 48 frames a second so it's actually slightly slow. It had to be something that was outside the narrative, if you like, but so powerful within it.”
A Quiet Passion isn’t a genteel biopic or a costume drama. For Davies, the film “addresses the one great question that we all have, ‘What is the function of life in the face of death?’” It also serves to remind why we still study and read Dickinson more than a hundred years after her death. As the director says, “She distills everything down to the absolute essence and then writes it with grace. That's what I think makes it so moving and so universal and so far ahead of its time.”
'A Quiet Passion' opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, May 5, 2017. For more information, click here.