Early in 1862, Emily Dickinson began one of her poems with a startling announcement: “I can wade Grief – / Whole Pools of it – / I’m used to that – / But the least push of Joy / Breaks up my feet.”1 The British filmmaker Terence Davies, whose nine previous fiction films center on people who live with unhappiness for decades and rebuff “the least push of Joy,” has a great deal in common with the Dickinson who claimed so much familiarity with misery. A Quiet Passion, Davies’s new film about Dickinson’s writing life, is less a literal account of the poet’s career than a ventriloquism of some of her grimmest and most intractable moods. What Davies has given us here is a Dickinson with a persona not unlike the one he’s cultivated over the course of his four decades as a filmmaker—an artist intrigued by the risks, rewards, and temptations of pessimistic self-denial.
Davies, who turned 71 last fall, came of age in a setting where his movements were restricted and his desires denied. He grew up in postwar Liverpool under the twin tyrannies of an abusive father and a church that burdened him with guilt over his being gay but, as he would later put it, “offered no succor” in return.2 Dickinson was born in Amherst in 1830 to a submissive mother and a wealthy father who smiled on her writing but kept a dim, conventional view of what a woman’s part in social life should be. As both artists got older, they found that they could not do, say, name, or imagine what they aspired to; their options were thinner and drearier than the ones their imaginations told them they should have. Eventually, they both developed a prickly defeatism, a sense that their happiness wasn’t factored into the scheme of the world. In both their cases, this defeatism was ironic; self-aware; spiked with humor and a kind of melodramatic excess designed to rebuff cheap sympathy or pity.
Davies has recruited Dickinson to defend his vision of the world as a lonely, inhospitable place.
Davies has been experimenting with this tone since the three shorts that make up The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976, 1980, 1983) and his early autobiographical films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These works dealt with young boys isolated by their shyness, shamed by their tentative excursions into gay desire, and (in the case of Distant Voices) cowed by a bullying parent. Davies has since made five more fiction films and a documentary—a rueful film essay about the history of Liverpool called Of Time and the City (2008). But A Quiet Passion is the first of these to center on a mature artist. Davies has, in a sense, put Dickinson on trial—recruited the poet, or a version of her, to defend his vision of the world as a lonely, inhospitable place.
The film is full of confrontations between Dickinson and her comparatively conventional relatives, particularly her eminent brother, Austin, and her unmarried sister, Vinnie, who lived with her in the “homestead” adjoining the house their parents had owned. Having these characters criticize Dickinson for her pessimism and stubbornness is Davies’s way of posing a question that pervades much of his work. Can a film have its basis in an antisocial, disappointed sensibility, hostile to the worldly or upbeat, like the one Davies gives Dickinson here? Would it have enough energy to sustain itself? Or can it only acquire energy by sacrificing precisely the kind of defeatism that makes Davies’s position bracing and strong?
A Quiet Passion begins with an extended prologue centered on the young Dickinson (Emma Bell) and her rebellious year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. But the movie concentrates on the span between her full creative emergence in the early 1860s—a period during which she composed more than six hundred poems in four years—and her early death in 1886. These were the decades that included Austin Dickinson’s unhappy marriage to Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May), whom Emily befriended and sent hundreds of poems, and his affair with a younger woman named Mabel Loomis Todd; the heart attack that killed Emily’s father, Edward (Keith Carradine); the stroke that left her mother an invalid; and the worsening of Dickinson’s own health, which led her increasingly to withdraw from the world. We’re subjected throughout the movie to harrowing visions of Dickinson, embodied with fearsome commitment by Cynthia Nixon, and her mother, both ill, prone, convulsing with pain and struggling to breathe. (Davies follows the suggestion of the biographer Lyndall Gordon, in her contentious 2010 book Lives Like Loaded Guns, that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which provides the basis for some of the movie’s most grueling scenes of physical pain.)
Notably absent from the movie are the two men—Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Otis Lord—with whom the unmarried Dickinson had her deepest and, in Lord’s case, most erotically charged relationships. More is made of her friendship with the married preacher Charles Wadsworth, a romantic vignette that was much exaggerated in the poet’s early biographies and persists in some strains of Dickinson lore. Davies does give Dickinson a witty, sexually progressive, and brashly irreligious socialite with whom to banter: Miss Vryling Buffum (Catherine Bailey), who shares a name with a woman Dickinson’s biographer Richard Sewell called a “friend of Vinnie’s and principal of a girls’ school in Amherst,” but who is essentially Davies’ invention.3 And he attends carefully to Dickinson’s humor, her adventurous reading (he has her defending the Brontës to Wadsworth’s prudish wife), and her familiarity with New England literary culture.4
The Belle and the Bard
The central drama of the movie, however, involves Dickinson writing, pacing, fulminating, quarrelling with her sister, and refusing to accommodate her society’s demands. (Selections from Dickinson’s poems, read aloud by Nixon, make up part of the movie’s dense soundtrack.) A representative scene shows her spurning a suitor who’s come to take her on a carriage ride and staying in her room while she imagines a tall, well-dressed stranger, his face obscured by the brim of his hat, mounting the stairs in her direction instead. We are in the territory here of texts like the epistolary addresses that Dickinson wrote, but almost certainly never sent, to an unidentified male figure—prose poems that burn with submerged desires and proud gestures of repudiation:
I waited a long time – Master – but I can wait more – wait till my hazel hair is dappled – and you carry the cane – then I can look at my watch – and if the Day is too far declined – we can take the chances [of] for Heaven …5
Davies’s Dickinson is the poet who wrote lines like “How ruthless are the gentle – / How cruel are the kind – ”; who compared loneliness to a putrid “Cavern’s mouth”; who conceded that some people, “Too infinite for Consciousness’ / Slow capabilities,” might be doomed to carry “the Cargo of Themselves”; and who staged visions of figures who lived in misery but rejected easy sympathy:
I cried at Pity – not at Pain –
I heard a Woman say
“Poor Child” – and something in her voice
Convicted me – of me –
Davies is drawn to this version of Dickinson just as he’s drawn to the poet’s mother and to Susan Gilbert, all observant, isolated figures who end up “convicted” for any assertions of selfhood they make. These characters have much in common with the strong-willed, intelligent, and hemmed-in women who populate Davies’ previous three fiction films: The House of Mirth (2000), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), and Sunset Song (2015). Finding Dickinson in the kitchen late one night during one of her habitual writing vigils, Susan confesses how, like the rural Scottish mother of that last film’s heroine, she dreads having to submit to her husband’s sexual demands. Stifled by their marriages or by their refusal to marry, these women end up pushed into a kind of bitter self-renunciation. The men around them rarely grasp what they’re renouncing or understand the source of their unhappiness. Between these women and these men lies a gap of ignorance not unlike the one that separated the young gay men in Davies’s earlier films from their parents and straight classmates. In some cases, the men in question become the women’s critics, questioning what grounds they have to complain about their lot.
Near the end of A Quiet Passion, Austin sees an opportunity to take revenge on Emily for calling him out on his conduct with Mabel Todd. He is sitting near his two sisters reading the Springfield Republican, whose editor, Samuel Bowles, was one of Dickinson’s closest correspondents and most trusted literary authorities. Telling Emily that “Mr. Bowles, whom I believe you admire,” has an editorial he thinks might interest her, he proceeds to read out a column Bowles did indeed write for the Republican (although in 1860, earlier than this stage in the film—Davies is playing loose with the chronology):
There is another kind of writing only too common, appealing to the sympathies of the reader without recommending itself to his judgment. It may be called the literature of misery. Its writers are chiefly women, gifted women may be, full of thought and feeling and fancy, but poor, lonely and unhappy. It may be a valuable discipline in the end, but for the time being it too often clouds, withers, distorts. It is so difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears.6
Injured, Dickinson rushes out of the room.
It’s tempting to take Bowles’s judgment, when it appears here, as a criticism not only of Dickinson’s poetry but also of Davies’s films. He has always been a filmmaker of the buried life, the unspoken desire, the current of feeling rerouted or dammed up. His visual sensibility has been both lush and imposingly formal, driven by graceful, unhurried camera movements and tableau-like compositions modeled on the wedding and funeral pictures for which his characters often pose. The connective sonic tissue of his films tends to be classical and folk music with stately, formal tones: Debbie Reynolds’s “Tammy”; Samuel Barber; the traditional song “Wayfaring Stranger”; Charles Ives. It’s as if he’s asking, in scenes like Austin’s recitation, whether his own sensibility as a filmmaker dignifies his subjects or further “clouds” and “withers” their lives.
When Davies imagines Austin reading the editorial aloud, he makes it an act of malice. But this dour image of “the literature of misery” also becomes a charge from which Davies has to defend himself, a challenge he needs to rebut. To show that his movie won’t blur under “a mist of tears,” he needs to give flavor, color, liveliness, and energy to the lonely, miserable situations he evokes. The burden of pulling off this tonal maneuver ultimately falls less on Davies than on Nixon, who quickly becomes the movie’s center of light, heat, and power. It’s as if Davies trusted her to embody a version of Dickinson who would both represent his kind of pessimism and enliven it, fill it with wit and spontaneity. She does so in the subtlest ways—in how she tightens and relaxes her face, contorts her lips, brightens her eyes, and moves through the movie’s recreation of the Dickinson homestead.
Poet and director both developed a prickly defeatism, a sense that their happiness wasn’t factored into the scheme of the world.
Nixon’s Dickinson isn’t always agreeable or even likeable. She can be priggish and petty; her face twitches with annoyance when she’s told that a loaf of bread she baked placed second in a local contest. When she argues with Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), you sometimes find yourself sympathizing with the poet’s forbearing sister and grasping her own hard position—that of a disenfranchised woman with all of Emily’s social isolation but few of the consolations of her sister’s art. Both Nixon’s Dickinson and Davies campaign against cloddishness and blithe intolerance: she rebukes her brother for denying women the right to speak or write for themselves; Davies, in his own account, once scolded an audience member who called the Trilogy too bleak but didn’t “know what it’s like to grow up in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal.”7 But in their sincere protestations there’s also a kind of comic self-deprecation, and a mischievous pleasure at laying it on.
In all these respects, Nixon’s version of Dickinson is a figure of strong and penetrating clarity. The men in Davies’s recent films—with their anxiety over their reputations and the pride that makes them ship themselves off to war—tend to be the ones with withered and distorted views. The women, in contrast, see through such illusions, and for having clear eyes the men who surround them call them “poor, lonely and unhappy.” They respond to such criticisms by suppressing their feelings more deeply, further hiding their intentions, and—in Dickinson’s case—arriving at a language of dense compression, elusiveness, and irony. “I should think you would have few Letters,” Dickinson wrote Bowles 14 years after he wrote that editorial in the Republican, “for your own are so noble that they make men afraid.”
- Cristanne Miller, Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them (Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 149. ↩
- Leonard Quart, “Remembering Liverpool: An Interview with Terence Davies,” Cineaste (Spring 2009). ↩
- Richard B. Sewell, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 92. ↩
- Dickinson’s “connected world” is one of the great subjects of “I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” an illuminating show of manuscripts, photographs, and other archival materials at the Morgan Library through May 28 that makes a useful companion to Davies’s film. ↩
- Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Belknap, 1958), p. 375. ↩
- Quoted in David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 395. ↩
- Donald Clarke, “Being Gay Has Ruined My Life,” Irish Times, November 25, 2011. ↩