Terence Davies’s slow and sumptuous A Quiet Passion turns the famously reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (played mostly and hauntedly by Cynthia Nixon) into an unenthusiastic but unshakable martyr for her sex. It’s not that she doesn’t want the piety and domesticity expected of women in her place and time; it’s that she can’t bear the “expected” part — not even when it’s God doing the expecting.
This fierce bid for freedom becomes its own sort of prison, as she is gradually forced by her own disappointment to withdraw from the world of conventional humanity. At least she creates some immortal verse along the way — it shows up in voiceover from time to time, apropos and unobtrusive.
Against her, Davies sets the vivacious and lovely Vryling Buffam, who understands and approves Emily’s cause but refuses to share her fate. Beside her, a loving sister who shares her fate but does not understand. And above her, a stern father who seems surprised to have raised a daughter who shares his wit, spirit, and self-possession. The rich imagery and controlled composition seem alternately to highlight Dickinson’s unfettered art and to mock her sadly fettered life.
Matthew Lickona: You play Emily Dickinson’s friend Vryling Buffam, who is, at the outset, even more ostentatiously rebellious against societal conventions than Dickinson. Tell me about the character of her rebellion.
Catherine Bailey: When I read the script, I was struck by how much of a feminist she was, how forward-thinking. Women in Massachusetts society in the mid-19th Century didn’t have half the rights that men did. But what was exciting about the character was her heightened style of communication. It was very performative, a form of entertainment — sort of Oscar Wilde prose. So she’s speaking about gender politics and religion, which is dangerous, but she’s doing it in a flamboyant way — saying that something “sounds as dreary as Paradise,” and that she fears heaven because she’s afraid it will be anticlimactic. The character knows that the lines are witty.
ML: Emily herself is impious when she’s speaking to her father and others, but when she talks to Vryling, she sounds almost devout — warning her not to do anything that God would not like.
CB: I think Emily has to have a toughness around her brother and her father; she’s railing against those guys. But with Vryling, she can let down her guard. It signifies how close their friendship is. She feels like Vryling is a safe and inspiring place to go with her doubts and moments of insecurity. It’s a very intense and affectionate friendship.
ML: And yet there’s the scene where Vryling says she’s going to get married after all, and that she is comfortable with the great American virtue of hypocrisy. Dickinson is so hopelessly sincere; does she feel betrayed there?
CB: There’s a sadness in that scene. It’s quite harsh. From Emily’s point of view, it would be seen as a betrayal. But Vryling sees herself as playing the game. I’m pretty sure it comes from a place of self-preservation. Vryling was going to spread her views amongst other women, but she wasn’t going to risk too much. When we filmed the scene where Vryling gets married, there was a sense of immense gloominess. I think Terence really wanted it to be like a death for Emily. She doesn’t even go out of the church and wave goodbye, because she doesn’t want to face it. As she says later, “They all leave. They all go away.”
ML: Tell me about working on the character with Terence Davies.
CB: He’s very funny. I think a lot of the aphorisms that come out of Vryling are pure Terence, and that he was very sympathetic toward the character. She has this sense of levity and fun. But for all that banter, he’s profoundly serious. He’s meticulous in his filmmaking, and that’s why his films are so exquisite. He makes the films he wants to make, and it’s not about pacifying the audience or even pleasing the audience. He was the opposite of a tyrant on set, but I really wanted to deliver what he was after. There was the good sort of pressure that comes from working with a proper artist.
ML: Any particular scenes come to mind?
CB: Well, he’s also very spontaneous. During the commencement ball scene, he said, “The character needs a fan.” I hadn’t used a fan, so I got a crash course from Cynthia Nixon, who was very generous. And it was a gift, the fan helps to form the archness of my character. And it embroils you in the period.
ML: At one point, Dickinson tells an admirer that “Admiration is always a mask for envy.” I wondered if that sentiment was somehow born of her relationship with you.
CB: I definitely think that’s in there. In the scene with the man on the stairs, there’s that sense of longing and yearning. She’s desperate to have somebody in her life. We did a Q&A for this film recently, and Terence said that his manager said to him, “This is the most autobiographical film you’ve ever done.” And he said, “It sort of is.” In the sense of being alone and desperately wanting to share your life with somebody. It reminds you of Dickinson poems like “Wild Nights,” which are Byronesque. You read them and think, You were writing that in your room in your homestead? Where did that come from? She was in her room, but there was so much going on, so much yearning and creativity even though she was confined in this small universe.