The handsomely mounted period piece “A Quiet Passion,” opening May 12 at the Ritz at the Bourse, is gay filmmaker Terence Davies’ gorgeously lit biopic of poet Emily Dickinson.
The film chronicles Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) returning home to Amherst where she tells her father (Keith Carradine) that she wants to write and publish poetry. Davies, who penned the screenplay, concentrates on aspects of Dickinson’s character, from her efforts to write to her friendship with Vryling Buffam (a scene-stealing Catherine Bailey) to her arguments with her brother Austin (Duncan Duff) over his extramarital affair and her prolonged illness.
On the phone from Boston, Davies spoke with PGN about beauty, truth, poetry and making “A Quiet Passion.”
PGN: What is it about Emily Dickinson that you identify with that made you want to make this film? Was it her rebellious nature?
TD: Apart from the poetry, which I love, I felt close to her spiritual course. She was spiritual without being religious. She believed in the soul but not in God. I have that same crisis in my life. She was Episcopalian and I’m Catholic. She had a close family and I come from a large family. She was not recognized in her lifetime. I’m on the periphery of things, and not in the mainstream, which almost feels like being ignored.
PGN: How did you choose which poems to include? Did you write the script and then fold in the poetry, or use the poems to create the story arc?
TD: It’s a mixture, really. You have to find the arc and once you’ve done that you place the poems, which act like music, and tell you where they go. Sometimes the poems inspire the scene, sometimes the poem fits the scene.
PGN: What accounts for the narrative approach you took to telling Dickinson’s life?
TD: If the inner life is rich, you don’t have to do things physically. It’s like writing a symphony versus a string quartet, which can be equally powerful in intention and performance. The [Dickinson] house is like a chamber piece. The things that happen take on an enormous importance, and that’s where the richness and drama comes from. She was an ordinary woman who liked to garden, bake and play the piano. But she’s a genius as well, which is what makes ordinary life difficult; [geniuses] can’t charter the waters of ordinary life.
PGN: Many of your films are set in the past. What do you think is the contemporary relevance for a film like “A Quiet Passion”?
TD: Her poetry will be relevant all the time. That’s not something you can address in a film. This is how I saw her life in a subjective way. You hope people read her. I’m a technophobe, so I don’t understand the world now. The more technology takes over, the more it seems like a denial of real life, which is why I feel more secure in the past.
PGN: What observations do you have about Emily’s integrity and high standards?
TD: Emily had a high moral stance, and if anyone fell below it, she felt it was impossible to forgive them. She’s appalled at what Austin has done; you are not unfaithful to your wife. The problem with Emily is her standards are so high, there were few who could maintain that standard. She reprimands herself twice because she’s aware of her own faults. She’s told, “Integrity taken too far can be taken as ruthless.” She never thought of that — that taking any virtue too far can become a kind of vice.
PGN: Catherine Bailey steals the film as the witty and outspoken Vryling Buffam. What can you say about her character?
TD: Vryling Buffam — with a name like that, she had to be fun. I didn’t want the film to be solemn. These were ordinary people, other than Emily who is a genius. Buffam encourages rebellion. Emily is inflexible. But I wanted to make Ms. Buffam fun. When you are entertained by someone, and they teach you something important, you never forget it because they entertained you.
PGN: The film is about the beauty of truth and the poetry of the known. Can you explain your interest in truth, beauty and realism?
TD: It depends on what truth you are looking for. Narrative truth is not the same as real truth. [In] the search for the truth — dramatically or artistically — you try to say something as honestly as you can. In real life, truth makes enemies and is not the best way forward. Being kind is better than being in the right. That’s a good template. We are all searching for a truth. For artistic truth, you set up an artificial life. They are lies, and you have to believe the lies. Any film has to be true, so those people who like it believe that aesthetic. But the people who don’t believe won’t — that’s the drawback.