Cynthia Nixon shines as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
A Film Comment Presents selection at last year's New York Film Festival and a highlight of this year's Glasgow Film Festival, A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies looks at questions of the soul, family, war, creativity and how to be true to yourself - all in stunningly beautiful images shot by Florian Hoffmeister (The Deep Blue Sea) and with costumes by Catherine Marchand. Cynthia Nixon is a wonderful, knowing, doubting, twinkling Emily Dickinson. Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie, her perfect match in loving banter and bitter argument. When their brother Austin (Duncan Duff) marries Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May) he gives them another sister. The female bonding comes across as effortless and their wit has lightning speed. Keith Carradine, as the patriarch Edward, rounds out the family dynamics.
Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) on disliking the role expected of her: "Live one week as a woman, I tell you."
Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith performed last month at the Morgan Library & Museum during the I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life And Poetry Of Emily Dickinson exhibition and A Quiet Passion was presented by Terence Davies.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Emily's sister Vinnie is a very interesting person who seems to almost have no life of her own. At times, it felt as though she was an invention by Emily Dickinson. The perfect sister whom she can converse with.
Terence Davies: They loved each other very very deeply, I think. I come from a family of ten and I know when people argue they just argue. The gloves came off and you said exactly what you thought. I said, so these arguments have got to be ferocious because you love one another so much.
Vinnie is always the one who makes up and makes the gesture to say I'm sorry, I didn't mean that at all, let us not be divided by this. But because, I think, Emily has an inner loneliness that could never probably be satisfied, even if a man did come and love her, she feels that she sort of doesn't deserve it.
Terence Davies has adapted Mother Of Sorrows by Richard McCann and is writing a film on Siegfried Sassoon. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Of course she does - that's why Vinnie is so loving towards her and says "because you are so easy to love." Not only that Emily thinks that she isn't, we've shown, I hope, in the film that there are parts of her that are not attractive. And that's true of us all. We've all got traits which are not attractive, which we are ashamed of. And every now and then they come out and you think - I thought I'd tackled that one! But I haven't.
AKT: Sometimes you wonder, though, what those unattractive traits are. Is it really unattractive that she is so ruthless about the brother's infidelity? Is her reaction really something that is so bad?
TD: It is for her. That's partially autobiographical. I had an older sister whom I adored. And in the last five years of my mother's life, she just ignored my mother who would do anything for her. And I had a ferocious row with her and I said to her: "I've adored you since I was a child". I said "Now I'm just utterly ashamed of you! The way you've treated my mother."
I said "I'll never ever forgive you!" I don't know how I kept from physically attacking her. I was so angry on my mother's behalf. And that's the way they both are. And also she [Emily] is aware and this is also purely autobiographical, she says: "I have many faults, there is much to rectify." I mean, although I'm no longer a Catholic - I'm an Atheist - all those Catholic things that were put into me are still there. I examine my conscience every day. I remember things. When I was a child, I was naughty. To my mother! And I told my mother to shut up. It burns into me when I think how could I have said that!
"Emily has an inner loneliness that could never probably be satisfied ..."
And people say, well, you were only a child. Well, that's not the point! The point is - I hurt her and I have not forgotten it. Also, when you feel that there are lots of faults in you and you look at someone whom you absolutely idolise and then you realise that they've got feet of clay!
AKT: I know exactly what you mean.
TD: And he [Emily's brother Austin] has done something which is immoral. Which is why I made sure that Susan [Gilbert] said "and cruelty knows no morality." Because she has got to say something and deserves to say something. But he doesn't take any notice of her at all. Because after Emily's death he still carried on having the affair. Walked around Amherst with this red wig on! God knows why! Obviously very strange.
AKT: For Emily, you have a scene where she is tortured by her looks, it seems, and by the role expected of her. You have to be decorous as a woman. She says: "Live one week as a woman, I tell you." Those thoughts are interwoven. It's like a braid of topics where one leads into the other.
TD: The irony, I think, Cynthia [Nixon] touched on this, had she [Emily] lived now, I'm sure she would be appalled. All the things that she would want, the freedom, but I'm sure she would be appalled by the way women have changed. Of course she was a woman of her period. There were things she expected herself to do, regardless. You'd have to be decorous. But she was intelligent and you'd have to be able to talk about things but honestly.
Emily with sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle): "They loved each other very very deeply, I think. I come from a family of ten and I know when people argue they just argue."
In today's world, anything goes, you can do anything now. So what happens then? What's the first thing that gets killed in that atmosphere? Subtlety gets killed. Once you can say anything and do anything, who is interested in subtlety? Nobody.
AKT: What are you working on now?
TD: Two things. A lovely American novel was sent to me about three or four years ago called Mother Of Sorrows by Richard McCann. The script is finished and we're raising cash and we're starting to cast now.
The other one which I'm writing now is about Siegfried Sassoon, who is one of the three great English war poets of the First World War. Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen were killed and he survived. And it's about him and those war years that brought through this great war poetry and jumping to the end of his life when of all things, he became a Catholic. Ironically, he was born in the same year that Emily died, 1886.
AKT: How you deal with war, in your wonderful film Sunset Song and here - speaking of subtlety! How you place war into the narrative and the absolutely terrifying results for people in so many ways. I don't know anybody who does it as well as you do.
The Dickinson family in A Quiet Passion
TD: Thank you. With the Sassoon I want to use war footage. There's a lot of photographs and moving images of the First World War. He had those dreadful nightmares. Because he was awarded the MC, which is the Military Cross for bravery. And he said, you know, it wasn't bravery at all, I was terrified. And when you're really terrified, you sort of don't care.
They had these night raiding parties and they got into this German trench and he only had a little torch. There were two other British soldiers in front of him. He thought one of them had fallen down with a greatcoat and he turned the torch and then kicked. And it was a German soldier and a greatcoat and he was rotting inside the greatcoat.
You know, you can't see things like that and not be profoundly moved. At the Battle of the Somme, in the first hour, 52,000 men were either killed or injured. The total casualties of the French, the British, and the Germans was one million! We can't recreate that. If we use the war footage it will be so powerful. It really will be powerful. I'm sort of looking forward to it in a way.
A Quiet Passion poster
When I went to drama school, you had to do a piece of Shakespeare and a piece of your own choice. Ironically enough, although I didn't know his war poetry at that time, I chose a poem of his called Concert-Interpretation, about the first performance of The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky in London in 1913. It had this huge riot in Paris but of course the English were far too decorous to riot. So he just describes this entire audience responding.
AKT: To The Rite Of Spring.
TD: There's a wonderful stanza which says: 'And in the Gallery, cargoed to capacity, No tremor bodes eruptions and alarms. They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity as though it were by someone dead - like Brahms.'
AKT: Oh, perfect. What was the Shakespeare you did together with it? You don't remember?
TD: What did I do? I think I did, like millions of others, Richard III. I was very bad.
Read what Terence Davies had to say on innocence, sin, half smiles and A Quiet Passion.
Read what Terence Davies had to say on Emily Dickinson, death, and the costumes in A Quiet Passion.
The Morgan Library & Museum in New York has on exhibit I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life And Poetry Of Emily Dickinson which runs through May 28, 2017.
A Quiet Passion opens in the UK this Friday, April 7 and in the US on April 14.