2016 is the year of brilliantly edgy and provocatively comedic period pieces centered around female literary geniuses. Earlier in the year, we laughed along with Whit Stillman’s film “Love & Friendship” based on Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” starring Kate Beckinsale. And now, thanks to Terence Davies appreciation for Emily Dickinson, we have “A Quiet Passion,” starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, and Catherine Bailey. The film captures the essence of Dickinson’s life, allowing us to not only understand this unusually talented poet, but to love her and “ignite more interest in Dickinson and encourage people to read and perform the poems,” as Catherine Bailey, supporting actress in the film stated.
I had the opportunity to ask Ms. Bailey, who plays Miss Vryling Buffam, Emily’s best friend in “A Quiet Passion,” a few questions about her vital role in the film. Her responses give a unique depth to her character, allowing you to appreciate her performance and the film even more.
RHR (Reel Honest Reviews): Your character is an absolute treat! Tell me what you loved most about playing Vryling Buffam and why did you choose this role?
CB (Catherine Bailey):Well thank you, glad you like the character! She is an absolute gift of a part, in that Terence has written her some sparklingly witty dialogue, that doesn’t shy away from rhetoric about heavy subjects including war, religion and education. She is brilliantly outspoken for a woman living in her time, and enjoys the fact that she is unusual and controversial. That is what I enjoyed most; being able to play a character that has razor sharp wit, but who can use it to stoke a conversation about big issues of the time. It was also a thrill to be playing opposite Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, two actors I have huge admiration for.
I love Terence Davies’s work, and the thought of working with him made getting involved in this project a no-brainer. He is rightly very passionate about Dickinson’s place as a genius of 19th century poetry, so being in the film was enough, let alone being able to play a role as exciting as Vryling Buffam. I was also enticed by the way Terence describes the friendship between Emily and my character in the script. They form a firm friendship very quickly, based on intellectual ideas, as well as life choices. Often female characters spend screen time talking about male characters, but I was thrilled that my character passed the Bechdel* test with flying colours! (*a work of fiction that features two named female characters that talk to each other about something other than a man).
RHR: Catherine, as I was watching the film, there were so many wonderful lines, many of my favorites were yours. Are there any particular lines that you loved?
CB: I am so pleased that the lines stand out like that. No one writes repartee like Terence Davies, in fact in conversation he is completely hilarious, often coming up with witticisms on the spot. I think one of my favourite exchanges is when my character first turns up at Emily’s homestead. Vinnie introduces “Miss Vryling Buffam” and I say: “Sounds like an anagram doesn’t it” followed by “…you see before you a life blighted by baptism”. I think that straight away you get an insight into what kind of woman she is with those comments; her irreverence and wit are the first things she wants to convey.
RHR: Given your background in theater, I’m assuming that you were familiar with Dickinson’s work before this opportunity. Is that an accurate assumption?
CB: She is definitely celebrated in the UK, and there are people in my business who are very passionate about Dickinson and can quote lines of her poetry, and yet others who have less of a notion of who she was. I hope this film will ignite more interest in Dickinson and encourage people to read and perform the poems.
RHR: Is there a particular poem that resonates with you?
CB: I love “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”. It is used in a very poignant part of the film, which gives it extra gravitas for me, but also it seems to embody Dickinson’s hope and playfulness beneath the suffering. The idea of death kindly stopping for her in a courtly fashion is a brilliant conceit, and that particular way she uses levity to approach a heavy subject is very moving. I also find that “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” is often going round in my head. There is something so pleasingly straightforward about the meter, its even pattern is deployed very simply, but the message of an increasing desire to be released from pain and suffering is so powerful. The poems weave in and out of the film so deftly, I really hope they will resonate with the audience.
RHR: The film is simply beautiful—the setting, the costuming—what changes do you feel as you don the dress and put yourself in that environment or time period?
CB:It is beautifully designed isn’t it. I think it is hard not to be affected by the setting on a film like this, it is a very immersive experience, especially as we got to shoot a few scenes in and around Emily’s actual home in Amherst. Getting into a corset and hooped skirts and wearing gloves and a bonnet takes time and effort, you need someone to help you, and once you are wearing everything you are totally different from a 21st century person. You can no longer walk, stand, sit or eat in the same way. You can’t slouch, or twist, going to bathroom takes ages – everything you would take for granted as someone living in 2016 is transformed. Wearing a corset takes some getting used to, at first it feels very restrictive but I rather like the upright posture it can give you. Taking it off at the end of a day’s shooting is a relief though! Also, if you are working with parasols, fans or even horses and carts, they are a constant reminder that you are in a different period. The design on this film is so exquisite that it is very easy to believe you are really in 19th century Massachusetts!
RHR: Vryling and Emily were avant garde in their thoughts about women’s rights, intellect, and equality. Do you think they, in any way, helped the cause for equality in the future?
CB: What a great question. I would like to think so. Emily has a few heated exchanges with her brother Austin in the film, and if they had conversations like that in real life, I like to think she challenged his way of thinking about the role of women in society. Change happens in hearts and minds, and affecting one person at a time is still progress. It seems that by being a woman who wrote prolifically and is rightly celebrated, she has helped the cause for equality by her very existence.
RHR: What do you think your character would say of today’s women?
CB: I think she might be conflicted about what to think. She would see that women have freedom in some respects, but I think she would be aware that they are still oppressed in various cultures, in various ways. The right to vote is still not afforded to women in some countries, and in the UK it is predicted that women will get equal pay with men in 116 years. I like to think she would have a strong sense of social injustice about such things, and be as outspoken and vehement as she is in the film – perhaps with a dash of activism thrown in. She would certainly be worth following on Twitter!
RHR: Do you feel that, as an actress, this role has helped you go grow in any way?
CB: Absolutely. Playing an American woman in the 19th century was a wonderful challenge, and Terence gave me some great reference points for that, including watching Olivia De Havilland in The Heiress, so I could find a certain vintage American accent. Also, as I mentioned, working with Cynthia and Jennifer was a masterclass in screen acting – they are effortlessly gracious and generous. It also rekindled my love for poetry, and Dickinson’s work in particular. You learn something with every project, but this one was very special indeed.
Be sure to seek and find this wonderful portrayal of an era lost but not forgotten and the women who influenced our futures. With keen insight, delightful reparte, and memorable lines that will haunt and inspire you, “A Quiet Passion” will create a beautiful symphony of passion for language and film.