Terence Davies is at once both monolithic and anonymous. A critically revered British filmmaker whose work has yet to catch on with general audiences (perhaps, in part, because his films are so crushingly intimate that it almost feels inappropriate to watch them in public), he’s seldom recognized on the street, and sometimes that might be for the best.
“The other day I was feeling low,” he said, “and I just thought: ‘Why am I making films that, like, three people or a dog go and see?’ I know this is feeble, but it really is killing when someone says ‘What do you do?’ ‘Oh, I make films.’ ‘Well, would I have seen some of them? Would I have heard of you?’ And I say: ‘Well, probably not.’”
Of course, some of our greatest artists are tremendously under-appreciated in their own time, though they may be the only ones who understand just how much that can sting.
A Personal Project
It’s hard to believe that Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” is the first movie ever made about Emily Dickinson — hard because she’s a literary icon and arguably the greatest of all American poets, and hard because the last eight months alone have brought us a biopic about the founder of McDonald’s, a biopic about a guy who used Google Earth, and a biopic about some rich lady who couldn’t sing very well. On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why filmmakers and financiers alike haven’t raced to tell Dickinson’s life story — easy because most of her human interactions were in writing, and easy because she was a reclusive virgin whose later years were spent holed up in her family’s Amherst home (where she suffered from agonizing bouts of Bright’s disease and refused to greet anyone who came calling for her).
Her life didn’t lend itself to a three-act structure. Her loves were all unspoken. Her fame was as unsolicited as it was undesired, and the majority of her work was only published after her death. While “A Quiet Passion” boasts an exquisitely unique lead performance from Cynthia Nixon, playing the poet as a neurotic force of nature who hides in her head but leaves her nerves exposed, the role could never be obvious enough to earn anyone an Oscar. So far as most people are concerned, Emily Dickinson was little more than a vessel for the verses she left behind, a legacy that some of her most celebrated poems have helped to enshrine. “I’m Nobody!” she insisted. “Who are you?”
“My personal life is really boring,” Davies said inside a sunny Manhattan hotel room, stretching out that last word until it doubled the length of his sentence. Such self-deprecation is par for the course from a man who’s been known to argue that any biography written about him would be a leaflet rather than a book. “I’m terrified of the world — I’ve never been at ease with it.”
Davies blanches from adventure, he abstains from drugs, he tenses at the thought of a haircut. Outspoken about his self-loathing sexuality (“I have hated being gay,” he told The Guardian) and admittedly celibate, he’s long thought of himself as “too self-conscious” for carnal relations. He may not be a recluse, but no other director of his great stature is so fragile or so frightened.
A Constant Focus
But while Davies insists that his own life isn’t worth the telling, all of his films have been forged from the molten pain of personal experience; all of them tremble with the man’s formative traumas. He has always been an open wound, stitching a career together from the skin he’s picked from his scabs. He scars easily, retaining an indexical memory of every slight he’s every suffered. He’s always ready to rage in recall of the eight-year period between “The House of Mirth” (2000) and “Of Time and the City” (2008) when no one would fund his films, and the slightest prompt is all that’s required for him to launch into a well-worn anecdote about the festival that invited him for a Q&A and then projected one of his movies to a completely empty theater.” Now 71, it’s clear that Davies is never going to heal.
His first features, 1988’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and 1992’s “The Long Day Closes,” exhumed the memories of his Liverpool childhood, where he was the youngest in a Catholic family of 12. One of those masterpieces is a wistful, working-class melodrama, and the other an ineffably delicate memory palace, but both explicitly tap into the details of his youth, and both are shaped by the discordant nostalgia of an outcast who yearns for a more repressive time. A boisterous Brit who’s as forthcoming in person as he is in his films — and perhaps even more theatrical — Davies has never been shy about locating his only happiness between the ages of seven (when his violent, domineering father died) and 11 (when his homosexuality first announced itself). All of his films are set during or before the 1950s. To this day, even his adaptations are sewn together from his scars; even his biopics are self-reflective. “A Quiet Passion” might as well be a mirror.
“What drew me to Emily Dickinson,” Davies said, “is that hers may not appear to have been a very exciting life, but it was so hermetically sealed. It was rich with drama. She had an incredible standard as far as morals and ethics are concerned, and if anybody fell below them, she was swift and deadly — including to herself.” If Davies knew that he was describing himself, he didn’t let on. “The main thing, I think, is that she was afraid of the world, and I think she was afraid of the world because, like all geniuses, she has one skin missing, and they respond to the world in ways that the rest of us don’t — that certain things, which most of us would forget, have deep, deep meanings for them. The real geniuses are usually very conventional.”
“A Quiet Passion”
The things that made Emily Dickinson so off-putting to other filmmakers are the things that made her utterly irresistible to Terence Davies. Where other people may have seen a story without any conflict, he recognized Dickinson’s experience for all of its pleasure and all of its pain, for all of its outsized smallness, for all of its solitude and sensitivities. He recognized himself in her, and in doing so also recognized that her life would make the stuff of great cinema, because his life always had. As a result, “A Quiet Passion” might just be the most autobiographical film that Davies has ever made.
“Well, that’s exactly what my manager said!” the director replied. “And he’s right. There was so much where I felt an empathy for Emily. The religious struggles, because I had that, too. A family that you didn’t want to change; when I was young, I wanted my family to stay the same way forever.” Davies quickly connected the dots for me, defaulting to a crushing memory from his more formative years: “Families can also be very cruel,” he said. “When I made my first films, I brought my family down to my little flat in London. They went to see it; they didn’t say anything. They got back to the flat. I said, ‘What did you think of it?’ They said, ‘You’ve got really nice shelves.’” He didn’t pause for breath. “That was really rather killing.”
Davies, like Dickinson (and perhaps the rest of us, as well), has always yearned for the love that was denied from him. Countless moments in “A Quiet Passion” establish that connection between filmmaker and subject, but the most lucid and direct of them all might be a brief aside in which Dickinson — milliseconds after humbly apologizing to her father’s employees for an earlier outburst — is crestfallen to hear that a loaf of bread she baked won second place in a local contest. “Second place…” she says, as though she’s just learned that an old friend has died.
Dickinson did, in fact, take pride in her baking skills, but her devastation was Davies’ idea. “The genesis of that was primary school,” the director said. “There was a family who lived opposite mine, and they had a party they invited all the children to, and I hadn’t been invited. I remember standing at the front door. It was a Sunday. I just felt so hurt. Then the woman came out and invited me in, and I thought, ‘I’m being invited in out of pity.’ It really hurt me. I’m still hurt by it, even now.”
Davies discusses his films, their characters, and the autobiographical events that informed them with such present-tense vigor that it seems impossible to believe he genuinely believes that his life is boring. His head shakes, his eyes bulge, and his voice warbles with outrage and amusement as though the spirit of his work were passing through him like a projector. Actress Jennifer Ehle, who plays Dickinson’s doting younger sister, Lavinia, later told me that Davies will sometimes weep on set when he captures a certain moment: “He’s ebullient and enormous — an explosion of glee,” she said. “It’s quite intoxicating and lovely to watch how the experience passes through him all over again.”
Again? “I do think it’s autobiographical,” Ehle said. “I abandoned reading much about Emily beyond the letters and the poems, before we even began filming once I realized that the film really is as much about Terence as it is about Emily. It is a great artist’s interpretation of another great artist’s life.” And while Ehle declined to mention any particular instances on set that may have contributed to her feeling, “A Quiet Passion” sublimates the parallels between those two artists directly onto the screen.
Davies has always been as precise with time as Dickinson was with rhyme, and that ineffable sense of rhythm defines several of the standout sequences in his latest film (e.g. the brilliant bit where his characters age several decades in the length of a daguerrotype exposure). The movie is defined by its staccato phrasings, elliptical flow, and opaquely confessional nature. Davies’ penchant for using windows and refracted light to express feelings of isolation help the Dickinsons’ meticulously recreated house to feel like both a prison and a looking glass for the woman who’s exiled herself inside.
She could have found a husband and moved out, the film suggests, but being a married woman in the 19th Century would have robbed her of what little creative control she was able to maintain over her own life; after all, she had to ask her father for permission to write, and she only did so in the dead of night, when everyone else was sleeping. Davies has said that, “Having your work taken away from you makes you feel like a non-person,” and just as Dickinson couldn’t stand an editor so much as moving a punctuation mark out of place, the filmmaker is too sensitive to survive the destruction of trying to move beyond his comfort zone.
Not that he doesn’t bemoan that fact. “If I look at Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Steve McQueen, Peter Greenaway… they’ve won many prizes from major festivals, Oscars and whatnot,” he said. “I haven’t done that. By that criteria, I’m the failure — I just am. You don’t like feeling a failure; it’s not fun. Sometimes, I have felt like, ‘Why have I done it like this?’ Why wasn’t I just prepared to say, ‘I’ll do anything?’ To get lots of money and have the actors tell you what to do, and have an assistant to whom you can turn over the shoot while you go to the lavatory?’ But I can’t live like that. I couldn’t. I’m not Hollywood material — I’ve always known that from the word go — but there’s part of you saying, ‘It must be nice.'”
“A Quiet Passion” is now playing in theaters.