British director Terrence Davies has made a clutch of really beautiful films. He could never be accused of rushing things, making five films in the last 15 years. Each one is not only carefully crafted, but a labour of love. Davies is a pleasure to interview because he is quietly self-deprecating and, in his shy way, very funny. He seems to regard his whole career as a giant piece of luck. We beg to differ, as his latest film A Quiet Passion, a warm portrayal of the life of seminal 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, attests.
So why this particular poet? For partly biographical reasons, Davies was drawn to her generalised spirituality, which anticipated a modern view and chimed with both the director and today’s view of whatever should replace religion.
“[Emily Dickinson] was spiritual without being religious. She was convinced that she has a soul, but what do you do if there is no god? I was brought up a Catholic and I was fervent from about 15 to 22-years-old, but I struggled with doubt. Eventually, I realised it was all a lie, but I knew I had a soul. Where do you put that? In her poetry, she sees there is no god, but she always charts a course between that and nothingness, as it were.”
Of course, there is also the magnetism of her enduring, deceptively simple poems. Davies includes a lot of her poems, always narrated in full. “Yes, and you can’t cut it short. We have to hear whole poems wherever possible. They are so powerful…” He then goes on to recite chunks of them from memory.
One of the things you notice about Davies’ answers is that whilst focusing on the work he also weaves in his own past and his evolution as a person and as an artist.
I have not read all 1800 of her poems, but the ones I do like, I really love. When I was a child I got sick and I was sent somewhere in Wales to convalesce. I hated it and I longed to go home. She also got ill and she was profoundly homesick and I knew what that felt like. Another thing was the closeness of her family. I come from a large family and we were very close. I love the way she distills everything down to the bare essence and then on top of that she is reticent. That’s what makes it so affecting.”
Many people today, looking through the lens of sexual politics, want to claim Dickinson as a feminist. Davies can see that but he also wants to correct it slightly.
“I don’t think it is done consciously. That was just how she was, and she didn’t think taking a stance was inappropriate. She had strong opinions, but like a lot of people who are intrinsically radical they can also be strangely very conventional. Ibsen for example, he wouldn’t go to the doctor because he didn’t like taking his clothes off in front of a stranger! I am not sure that if Emily was alive today she wouldn’t be slightly appalled by feminism. She might be very reactionary, but still, for her time she was radical.”
The other standard biographical approach to Dickinson’s story is that she became pathologically reclusive in the latter part of her life. Davies, alludes to the danger in over-reading that as a self-destructive choice.
“I don’t think she was that reclusive. I mean she wanted to come back home when she was ill, and, yes, she retreated. And later by the time that she realises the heaven has become a prison, she feels she is too old to do much about it. Everybody’s view of a life is slanted to one degree or another. I mean, because you don’t go anywhere, that doesn’t mean that life isn’t rich. If you have a rich inner life then ‘going nowhere’ doesn’t matter. Some people rush around and yet they get nothing from that.”
How did he decide on the balance of what to show and what to cut out given that he is trying to cram a whole life into two hours?
“There are really only two ways to show something like a life. Either you go from the character’s point of view – in which case you can’t really show anything to which they are not privy – or you are the omniscient narrator in which case you can go anywhere. I wanted to do it from her perspective and that restricts it. There are lots of things that I had to leave out. She wrote three volumes of letters for example. In the end, I wanted to concentrate upon those three things; her homesickness, the nature of the poetry and the fact that she didn’t want the family to ever change.”
The film stands or falls on the in-every-frame performance of Cynthia Nixon as Emily, so we wanted to know how she came on board.
“When I was writing the script, I kept on seeing her face. One of my co-workers used to be a stills photographer and he superimposed Cynthia’s face on a photo and she looked just like the older version of Emily. Cynthia grew up with this poetry and she herself can read poetry, which is not true, incidentally, of all actors. I sometimes think that if you can’t read poetry you can’t teach others to do it. I just knew she was right. I almost always cast one person who doesn’t have to read for the part (everyone else has to) and she was that person.”
Davies tells a story of the star – who seems equally self-deprecating – and of her long-term loyalty to the project.
“We had lunch in New York and she said, ‘you’ll never get money for a film in which I am the star’. And it took us four and a half years, and she was very loyal to the project when she could have done other things. And I told her we would get the money and we did. It was such a wonderful experience. I can honestly say that absolutely nothing went wrong during the making.”
A Quiet Passion is another period piece. So much of Davies’ work is based in the past (best known include Distant Voices, Still Lives, The House of Mirth, most recently Sunset Song). Now in his 70s, Davies feels he is no longer so up to date in one way. He explains that, in a sense, he feels safer there.
“Oh, I can’t do anything contemporary simply because I can’t understand the world now. I can’t use any of the technology – none of it – it is almost a denial of modern life. I just don’t understand the world now. And, to be truthful, I am little afraid of it.”
A Quiet Passion is in cinemas now.