Feeling as others do, part 2

Terence Davies talks about Emily Dickinson, death, costumes and A Quiet Passion.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Terence Davies to Catherine Marchand:
Terence Davies to Catherine Marchand: "I don't want them to look as though they'd just come from costume." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Terence Davies, the esteemed director of The House Of Mirth; Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Deep Blue Sea; The Long Day Closes, and Sunset Song spoke with me on the costume designs by Catherine Marchand for his latest film A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson with Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie. Catherine Bailey, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Joanna Bacon, Benjamin Wainwright, Sara Vertongen, Emma Bell, Jodhi May, and Noémie Schellens head a dandy supporting cast.

Hearing Claire Bloom read Dickinson, kidney disease, and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Albert Serra's The Death Of Louis XIV come up in the second part of a series on my journey with Terence Davies.

Cynthia Nixon plays the scenes of the attacks beautifully.
Cynthia Nixon plays the scenes of the attacks beautifully. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: A word about the costumes. There are such wonderful, little things off about Emily Dickinson's wardrobe. A button that didn't fully close, a bit of lace that's torn. All of this put there on purpose, I suppose?

Terence Davies: Yes. What I said to the costume designer [Catherine Marchand] - I don't want them to look as though they'd just come from costume. They've got to look as though they wear these things. And if they do wear them then, they do slightly fray, they won't be pristine. She sits down and one shoulder is higher than another then that's the way it would be in real life.

What's even more important than the outer costume is the underwear because that makes you stand and sit in a very different way from modern times. But they've got to look as though they are wearing these things and they've worn them before. That all the young men have floppy collars, the only person who has a stiff collar is her father. And their hair is not quite pristine. That's the way it would have been. Especially in a wooden house in this country when it's hot - I mean, it's suffocating. All those things would be there and they affect what you wear.

Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion

AKT: From costumes to death - Miss Buffam [Catherine Bailey] says at one point when they have a dialogue about death and she says "hell is probably even duller than heaven." What a great line! I had just before seen Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV with Jean-Pierre Léaud. I told Léaud that during a scene when he looks at the camera, I felt that I had become Death, coming to get him. At the same time it's very normal, casual that death is in their life. That's something that is in Emily Dickinson as well. Death is always present but not as this looming figure.

TD: Because they saw a lot of people die, young and at home. Mothers died in childbirth, children died. One of her nephews died when he was 14. There were no painkillers, so you got on with pain because there was no other way of stopping the pain. Some people became addicted to laudanum. She didn't, she didn't take it. There was no kind of painkiller. We cannot know what that was like. And death was something you didn't dread. You knew that it would come.

Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey):
Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey): "Hell is probably even duller than Heaven."

Now, because of the luxury we live in now, it's only other people who die. We never do. And when death comes we shunt it off screen because you don't want to think about it. Because one day you know it'll be you and the world will carry on quite easily without you.

AKT: Death happens in the hospital, like birth and illness, far away.

TD: Yes - but keep it away. What they didn't have, because people didn't live that very long, except in exceptional cases, they didn't have Dementia and Parkinson's Disease.

AKT: Emily Dickinson died at age 56, right?

TD: She died at 55, 1830 - 1886. She died actually of a combination of congenital heart failure and Bright's disease, which is a kidney disease. And she would have been in a great deal of pain with that because I make kidney stones myself once every five years and it's very painful. When it first happened, I didn't know what was going on. The only pain that's worse than it is childbirth. I literally crawled.

Emily Dickinson with sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May):
Emily Dickinson with sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May): "What's even more important than the outer costume is the underwear ..."

AKT: I know. My partner had kidney stones and it was an absolute nightmare. Cynthia Nixon plays the scenes of the attacks beautifully.

TD: It must be lovely to have an easy death. One of my lovely old neighbors went to bed and died in his sleep which is wonderful. I wish we could all do that. But death like birth is a struggle. And it can't be glossed over and it can't be sentimentalized. It's just very hard, the soul trying to leave the body. That's not easy.

AKT: For the film, did you always know that the most famous poem would come at the end? That you wanted us to wait?

TD: No. I knew I wanted it over the funeral because it was the first poem of hers I'd ever heard. Claire Bloom was reading it on television. 'Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me.' But it's an earlier poem that I ended the film with. 'This is my letter to the world' which is just so heartbreaking.

The Morgan Library & Museum - I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life And Poetry Of Emily Dickinson
The Morgan Library & Museum - I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life And Poetry Of Emily Dickinson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Because, you know, she was never known in her lifetime and there's no despair in it. There's no resignation, there's just a simple acceptance that the world did not respond to her. She applies, I think, in the poem, if in generations to come, I hope you'll like what I've done. And that's why it's so moving.

Read what Terence Davies had to say on innocence, sin, half smiles and the poet of genius in A Quiet Passion.

Coming up - Terence Davies on a world without subtlety, his drama school audition, bad traits, the Dickinson family dynamics, and upcoming projects on war poet Siegfried Sassoon and the novel Mother Of Sorrows by Richard McCann.

A Quiet Passion screens in the Glasgow Film Festival on February 23 at 6:00pm - Glasgow Film Theatre - Expected to attend: Terence Davies.

The Morgan Library & Museum in New York has on exhibit I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life And Poetry Of Emily Dickinson has been extended through May 28, 2017.

A Quiet Passion opens in the UK on April 7 and in the US on April 14.

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