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.

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