Cynthia Nixon embodies 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson in British director Terence Davies’s “A Quiet Passion,” screening at the New York Film Festival as a Film Comment Selection. Although this is the director’s first drama based on a live person, don’t call it a biopic.
White-haired and pink-complexioned, the 71-year-old director is best known for movie adaptations of 19th Century classics “House of Mirth,” “Sunset Song” and “The Deep Blue Sea.”
Wednesday afternoon, Davies was joined by Cynthia Nixon for a press conference to chat with journalists after the New York Film Festival press screening at the Walter Reade Theater. Davies spoke passionately about the subject of his film, and how he discovered her poetry when he was 18 when he read, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”
“About six years ago, I started re-reading the poems and realized just how wonderful they are,” he said. Intrigued by her quiet life in Amherst and that she never wandered from her family home, he realized, “You don’t have to go all over the world to feel alive – you can stay in one place.”
He was drawn to her spirituality and also angered by the fact that she wasn’t recognized in her own lifetime. “That, more than anything else, really always angered me because she deserved better than that,” Davies said. “I think she’s the greatest American poet of the 19th century. That’s why I wanted to do it.”
During the press conference, Davies said he identified with the women in his movies because of their outsider status. “I’ve always been an outsider. I’ve never been a participant in life. I’ve always been an observer. I wouldn’t do anything sort of adventurous or dangerous. I’m too afraid. I’m terribly timid, so I know what that feels like.”
Nixon came aboard the project four to six years ago, said the director. When the money fell through, he kept with the script and kept her in mind “I saw her face when I was writing the three drafts. I hoped she would say yes, and she stuck with it for four years, so she is very, very loyal to the project. If she had said no, I have no idea who I would have cast.”
The two met a few years earlier when she auditioned for a film that didn’t materialize. “Then I had heard from him a few years after that,” said Nixon. “I received this offer, this amazing script, a biography of Emily Dickinson, and Terence asking if I would play Emily. I was completely overwhelmed, but I was less overwhelmed than I might have been because I thought, ‘Well that’s a very nice idea, but it will never happen,” she laughed. “I’ve been paid a tremendous compliment. Now I’ll always have that keep in my pocket and rub it when I’m feeling blue.”
When the project finally came together she said, “I do feel the natural choice to play Emily Dickinson. I’m a fan of hers. My mother was a huge fan of hers and so I kind of grew up with her in the house.”
She also was familiar with the Julie Harris movie “Belle of Amherst,” based on Dickinson’s life, and in her home they had a record of Harris reading Dickinson’s most famous poems. On a personal level, she identified with Dickinson’s shyness and life-long hope that “someone might take the trouble to peer in and look inside me, and I felt a lot like that when I was a kid.”
Nixon, whose next role, despite her liberal politics, is as Nancy Reagan in the upcoming television movie, “Killing Nixon,” said it takes a great filmmaker like Davies to understand that just because you spend a lot of time indoors doesn’t mean your viewpoint is narrow or limited.
“Terence understands that there can be very enormous, very dramatic worlds in there,” in your internal life, “so I think that Terence was very focused on it,” she said. “These were people who lived in a more formal time than we do, but that doesn’t mean that they’re from Madame Tussauds. They have feelings, arguably they have feelings even stronger than our feelings because there are less outlets for them.”
She added, “Terence is a very dramatic, emotional person, so I think he made sure that we didn’t stint on those very impassioned exchanges.”
Responding to a question about the modern world and how it relates to Dickinson’s time and the restrictions she felt as a woman, the director said, “I don’t understand the modern world and I certainly don’t understand it from a woman’s point of view, because as you can probably guess, I’m not a woman. So I’ve no idea about the modern world. I’m completely confused by it all the time.”