SPEAKING SOFTLY, BUT SAYING A LOT
Cynthia Nixon brings feminist genius Emily Dickinson to life on the big screen
We might always know her first and foremost as Miranda (and thanks to her we will surely never look at a Krispy Kreme the same way again)—but in the 12 years since Sex and The City ended, Cynthia Nixon has lived many lives. Her latest transformation is as the dame of 19th-century American poetry, the reclusive genius Emily Dickinson. A Quiet Passion, directed by Terrence Davies, has already been called “an absolute drop-dead masterwork” by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, and while that might be a bit of a stretch for this straightforward biopic, Nixon is, without a doubt, stellar in the role.
During the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Nixon was the picture of poise. A purple pashmina gently encased her shoulders as she, like the poet she plays, carefully chose every word. Nixon describes herself as “a Dickinson fan, certainly” who grew up listening to her deceptively simple verse as recordings of it played in her house. “I feel as though [the poems] really penetrated my psyche, because the thing about Emily’s poetry is that it’s very deep, it’s very dense, and the vocabulary is very expansive, but it’s also short enough and simple enough that a child can hear it and get what’s being talked about,” she says.
Dickinson was a quiet but thrillingly modern woman. “I think Emily had a lot of—if she were an actor we would call it ‘performance anxiety,’” says Nixon, who imagines the poet agonizing over her work, wondering, “How am I going to be perceived? Is it good enough? Is it any good at all? Have I succeeded, have I failed?” (It comes as a small comfort to know that imposter syndrome dates at least as far back as the 1870s.) Even though Dickinson is known for her withdrawal from society (never leaving her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts), the misconception, held even by her own brother, Austin, was that she was “a dried up, bitter, spinster who knows nothing of love and sex, who is just a downer” as Nixon puts it. But the actor insists that Dickinson was radical in her own way. “If you look at how women have had to make their way in the last few decades in politics and business and law and any of the traditionally male professions, they have often had to ape men’s behaviour, attire and approach. The thing about Emily Dickinson is that she never did that. She never renounced her gender. She wrote from her gender. She embraced the feminine and just went deep into the rigidity of it.” So call Dickinson a dried up spinster if you like, but it’s not her brother’s or her male editor’s work we look back at in awe—it’s hers.