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Director Terence Davies brings Emily Dickinson’s poetic identity onscreen

Director Terence Davies read Emily Dickinson at 18, he says, but when he picked her up again in earnest and in his rereading, “I wondered, and wanted to know her.”

Christopher Wahl/The Globe and Mail

For A Quiet Passion, the first biographical film about the great 19th-century poet and American literary icon Emily Dickinson, it took an outsider to capture her elusive identity.

The poet, who dressed all in white and gardened by moonlight (and wrote the words "I'm nobody! Who are you?") was virtually unknown during her lifetime, but now enjoys a towering posthumous reputation. (When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature last year, for instance, his lyrics were compared to Dickinson's poetry.)

Yet Dickinson herself remains an enigmatic figure, one that A Quiet Passion star Cynthia Nixon has described as "the patron saint of shyness."

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A prismatic and slippery Dickinson – variously wry, girlish, insolent, wistful and terse – does indeed exist in her work, and in Terence Davies's film, too. The new drama from the English director is a richly detailed biographical portrait. It is unusual and, like Pablo Larrain's Jackie, it is not, strictly speaking, a biopic, but a film that harnesses the disarming power of Dickinson's work in elliptical episodes. But then, Davies's 2008 collage documentary Of Time and the City isn't a traditional documentary, either – at the time, Davies called his film of hometown Liverpool "a subjective essay" based on his emotional memories.

In the narration of that film, Davies reads Dickinson's poem 301 ("I reason, Earth is short/And Anguish – absolute"). He first read Dickinson at 18, he says, but when he picked her up again in earnest and in his rereading, "I wondered, and wanted to know her." (He finds solace in poetry, in general: He usually travels with T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Shakespeare's sonnets for company, and is working on a screenplay about the poet Siegfried Sassoon.)

Davies structures the screenplay in loosely chronological episodes, beginning with teenage Dickinson's stint in a women's seminary in the 1840s, a time essential to her life and to the film for establishing "where she stands in terms of her soul, and her attitude towards God and set religion," Davies, 71, explained last fall, on the eve of A Quiet Passion's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"The rest of it has to be structured so we move through that quest – and it's a constant quest – for God and the soul."

A rebellious loner (she refuses to kneel in prayer), Dickinson progressively narrows the scope of her daily activities until she lives in near-total seclusion.

"The reason she went home is she was homesick, such terrible homesickness that almost made her ill," Davies says, quoting her line from the film: "I don't want anything but my family. It's not perfect, but it's all I could want or know."

Davies says he knows what those family dynamics are like, since he comes from a large family himself, "but what was extraordinary is that she retreats into it and in a way wants the family to remain like that and never change.

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Of course that can't happen in real life – the only time that happens is in Meet Me in St. Louis."

Before writing his film, Davies had to figure out what of her writing to leave out. "She wrote three volumes of letters alone. She wrote every day. She wrote 1,808 poems! She didn't have time to go out," he says with a chuckle.

All this, from a small table in her upstairs corner bedroom at her homestead in Amherst, Mass. – the same house where Dickinson was born and died; and in between, lived stitching her poems into packets.

Accordingly, the film threads her poetry into her life.

Throughout the film, specific shots are carefully timed not to the beats of the score but to the contours of Dickinson's verse. "The poetry is the music," Davies says.

So the line "The dying need but little, dear" is recited in tandem with the funeral of Dickinson's beloved father; "Thunderbolt to your soul" is adjacent to another dramatic life event, and "We outgrow love like other things, and put it in a drawer" after a wedding.

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Davies knew that he wanted to save "This is my letter to the world" for the very end, even though it's not a late-period poem.

Dickinson scholars and the many biographies of her (Davies has read six) continue to speculate about the reasons for her self-confinement – that she was traumatized by an ill-fated romance, or was bipolar, or agoraphobic, or pragmatic about how time-consuming niceties of social calls would take away time she could be devoting to her writing. "I don't think it was that at all – I think it was much more profound," Davies says. "I think she is terrified of the world."

"And I think she's an observer," he adds. "She's not a participant. That's where her genius lies."

She writes about the isolating power of sadness, and Davies found an affinity there, too. The parallels to the contemporary condition of detachment are especially resonant, with people's connections to one another often tethered through smartphones and other devices.

"I'm absolutely hopeless at [technology] but I do understand what she feels about being an outsider, because I'm not a participant either," he says.

"I'm an outsider. I've never done anything adventurous – I've never gone across India with only £5 in my pocket, or taken drugs, because I'm just too frightened. Most of my life I've spent alone and celibate. That's not much fun.

"Unfortunately when you are an outsider and an observer you never fully become part of life."

A Quiet Passion opens April 14 in Toronto.

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Nathalie More

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