‘Terence Davies specializes in outsiders; his characters are often solitary, melancholy figures contemplating a world of both immense sadness and intense pleasure. It’s a perspective this autobiographical filmmaker clearly shares, and one that extends to his place in British cinema. Thanks to a low profile that’s at once scrupulously self-maintained and a product of his industry’s never having known quite what to do with him, Davies has not achieved the household-name status he so richly deserves, despite widespread admiration from peers and critics (he’s “regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living film director,” wrote Nick Roddick in the London Evening Standard in 2008). Still, this modest Liverpudlian has, with only six features and three shorts over a thirty-seven-year career, staked out a unique spot in his national cinema, creating films that defy easy categorization. Do his wrenchingly personal works fit within the long tradition of British realism or stand in contrast to it? Are they of a radical or conservative temperament? Do they convey despair or elation? The answer—all of the above—speaks to the films’ rich, strange, and emotionally complex beauty.
‘Though Davies earned his reputation mainly for the poetically rendered autobiographical films he made in the first sixteen years of his career (from 1976 to 1992), his cinema has since come to encompass many forms, including adaptations of American literature (John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth) and classic British theater (Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea) and documentary (his idiosyncratic, mostly found-footage Of Time and the City). In addition, he’s written a novel and produced radio plays, including one based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The unapologetic classicism of much of this later work sits surprisingly comfortably alongside his more experimentally minded personal films—all center on social outcasts, and all use their narratives as a way of playing with the nature of time on-screen. Nevertheless, it’s Davies’s early work that bears the true mark of his singular vision. During those years when he was unwaveringly focused on the particulars of his own experience—his difficult family history, his tortured relationship with his sexuality, his fears and hopes and dreams—he burrowed to places in himself that most artists wouldn’t dare go.
‘The last of ten children, only seven of whom survived infancy, Davies grew up in working-class Liverpool, the introverted son of a kind mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, and a tyrannical father, who died when he was seven. Davies has said that much of the abuse his father unleashed on his family was so unimaginable as to be untranslatable to the screen (“I couldn’t put in many things that happened, because nobody would have believed it. He was so violent,” he told me in a 2012 interview). This cruel man is a central figure, if at times as a specter, in Davies’s first five films: the shorts Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983), which constitute what is now titled The Terence Davies Trilogy; Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); and The Long Day Closes (1992). In the hauntingly austere, black-and-white trilogy, the first part of which Davies made when he was thirty and studying acting at Coventry Drama School, he reimagines himself as the closeted Robert Tucker, whose life he chronicles from abject childhood to miserable adulthood to lonely death. (In 1983, Davies continued to dramatize the life of this surrogate character in his novel, Hallelujah Now, a devastatingly candid study of a fragmented mind.) In Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies removes himself from the picture, focusing on the lingering effects of his father’s violence on his mother and three of his siblings. But he returns as protagonist in The Long Day Closes, the culmination of this period of unbroken cinematic introspection, a mesmerizing memory piece on Liverpool in the 1950s that presents a subjective, impressionistic experience of childhood.
‘Concentrated as it is on a fleeting era in his life—the years that Davies has called his happiest, after the death of his father and before the acute terrors of puberty set in—The Long Day Closes is all about the moment as it’s experienced. It offers a cinematic lushness—of cinematography, set and sound design, music—that constitutes a sort of constant ecstasy. Davies’s personal obsessions, forged during childhood, are on majestic display here: the songs of Doris Day and Nat King Cole, the escape of the movies, the enveloping comfort of friendly neighbors, the camaraderie of holiday celebrations. “Everything seemed fixed, and it was such a feeling of security that this is how it will be forever, and I really believed that,” Davies said of this period. Yet there’s an underlying sadness encroaching on those joys, an awareness that it all must end. In The Long Day Closes, we’re essentially seeing the world through the eyes of a child alive to its sensations, yet whose astonishment is bridled by the wisdom of a middle-aged man aware of its disappointments. The effect is an almost unbearable poignancy.
‘Davies may seem to be entering well-trodden generic territory in relating the experiences of young Bud (played by onetime actor Leigh McCormack, who has the mournful stillness of a Renaissance angel), living in harmonious grace with his beatific mother (Marjorie Yates) and jocose older siblings (Ayse Owens, Nicholas Lamont, and Anthony Watson). In outline, it could sound much like such other coming-of-age tales as Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog (1985) and John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987). But unlike those more straightforward films, Davies’s unfolds in a highly unconventional narrative that collapses past and present; rather than a story, the film offers impressions and traces of childhood. Davies similarly forsook strict linearity for the trilogy and Distant Voices, Still Lives, but The Long Day Closes is his least orthodox, most visually and aurally layered work, a reminiscence with no discernible beginning or end, as given to flights of fancy as doses of reality. This, like his earlier work, is hardly the stuff of bleak kitchen-sink realism, despite the authentic working-class milieu; in fact, Davies has said that he finds the famed British New Wave films of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Look Back in Anger (1959) and This Sporting Life (1963), “dreary” and “drawn from the middle-class point of view.” Davies’s films seem made to attest to his belief that “working-class life was difficult, but it had great beauty and depth and warmth.”
‘With its purposeful lack of breadth, The Long Day Closes is all depth. Focused on a short period in a boy’s life, the film is less about events than the profundity of a child’s inchoate feelings. One is likely to take away from the film not a crucial narrative “moment” but an image or a sound—the fragment of a song, the odd audio clip from a movie wafting across the soundtrack like a radio transmission from some deep psychological recess. Still, this is not an anything-goes work that’s been assembled in the editing room; Davies always meticulously plans every camera angle and movement, cut, musical cue, lighting effect, and sound bridge as early as the first draft of the screenplay, and rarely deviates from this blueprint. To date, Davies has made only two films that move in strictly chronological fashion—The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000)—although even these play with duration and temporal ellipses. He told me, “It’s not interesting to say this happened, then this happened, then that happened. When people remember, they remember the intensity of the moment and nothing else.” The intensity of the moment is what defines The Long Day Closes, which is as engrossed in the nature of time itself as in its maker’s own past.
‘Davies announces that preoccupation with time, in characteristically subtle fashion, in the film’s opening credits. The Long Day Closes commences with a beautifully composed still life of a bowl of roses, illuminated against a shadowy nothingness by a shaft of dusty sunlight. Though unrelated to the rest of the film in any literal way, the image is a natural one if we know of Davies’s devotion to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a group of poems concerned with the mysteries of time and memory, first published together in 1943. The first, “Burnt Norton,” opens with an evocation of mortality and decay, symbolized by “a bowl of rose-leaves.” For three and a half minutes, Davies allows the entire credit list to play out over what seems like a static image. But if we look closely, we notice that the roses are slowly wilting, an effect achieved through a series of nearly imperceptible dissolves. Finally, dead petals are scattered across the table. The film has scarcely begun, but already Davies has made us aware of our experience of time. There is a quiet message here: Look closely and patiently. This beauty will surely, sadly pass.’ — Michael Koresky
Terence Davies Official Website
Terence Davies @ IMDb
‘The Inner Light of Terence Davies’, by J. Hoberman
‘Terence Davies on religion, being gay and his life in film’
TD @ TSPDT
‘A SINGLE CONSCIOUSNESS: THE CINEMA OF TERENCE DAVIES’
Terence Davies Filmography
‘Five sublime sequences in Terence Davies films’
‘Life And Truth: Director Terence Davies Interviewed’ @ The Quietus
‘Terence Davies: How This Gay Filmmaker Channels His Feelings of Ostracism’
‘Criterion Corner: Discussing Terence Davies with Michael Koresky
‘Terence Davies: Slow dissolve’
‘The Liverpool I knew has all gone now, says Terence Davies’
‘TERENCE DAVIES VISITS THE U.S. – AND US’
‘Sing, Memory: The Postwar England of Terence Davies’
‘QUEERNESS AND MELANCHOLIA: An Excerpt from Terence Davies’
‘A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films’
‘Exploring the melancholy early work of Terence Davies’
‘TERENCE DAVIES DIVES IN’
Terence Davis – In Conversation
Terence Davies on Ealing
‘2001- A Space Odyssey (Film Club intro by Terence Davies)’ 1989
Terence Davies: Reverse Shot Direct Address #13
It’s Personal: Memories of Terence Davies
Are you still Catholic?
Terence Davies: God, no! I gave that up at 22. I suddenly realized then that it was a con. I was a very devout Catholic, I really did believe. But it gave me no succor. And when I realized I was gay, and was getting absolutely guilt-ridden about it and not doing anything, I knew something was deeply wrong. I prayed until my knees were raw and finally went to Mass one Sunday evening, and just before the offertory I thought: It’s a lie, it’s actually a lie; they’re just men in frocks. And I got up and walked out. And I never went back – it was that sudden. It was like the Emperor’s New Clothes. And I was so angry. I’m still very angry about it, because it wasted a lot of my emotional time.
Was this just an emotional rejection? Or do you think Catholicism is logically and intellectually flawed as well?
TD: Well, for me it’s flawed because it starts from the premise that we’re all sinners. I don’t accept that. I think original sin is a monstrous idea. I don’t believe most people are evil, though some undoubtedly are. The majority of people are basically good, they don’t go around killing six million people. But it’s all a question of belief or disbelief. If you look at it quite dispassionately, it’s as remote, as unmeaning, as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It’s that remote to me now, and it’s as exotic, as theatrical. The Catholic Church, if nothing else, has a great sense of theater. In a sense it’s like watching a film. After two minutes – if you believe, then that’s fine. If you don’t believe, forget it. No matter how good it might be.
Your Catholic background seems to have left one mark on your movies: they’re structured like altarpieces. Why is the new movie in two separate parts?
TD: Well, I feel they complement one another. All the terrible family history is packed into Distant Voices, which is about the nature of time and memory. But in Part 2 – Still Lives – life has reached an even keel. I wanted to make something interesting out of our lives as stasis. The first part throws the second part into relief. And in Part 2 we see the chains that bind this family together beginning to loosen and the family drifting apart. Imperceptibly: they don’t realize it. And that’s why at the end, one by one, they go into the dark. “Dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark.” A kind of metaphorical death.
How much of the movie is direct autobiography?
TD: Well, all the things that happen actually happened. If not to me, to my family. They told these stories when I was very young, so they became part of my memory, almost as though they happened to me because they were so vivid. But some things I remember being part of. The Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing sequence was based on a visit to the cinema one hot Saturday; my two sisters took me, and everyone was weeping away in the audience. And I wanted to have the irony of the two men falling through the glass roof in the scene we cut to. The idea is that life is much harsher than what you’ve seen on the screen. And it disorients you, which I think is interesting. You don’t know quite where you are. There are other things in the sequence. The umbrellas are a direct homage to Singin’ in the Rain. I was determined to have umbrellas with rain on them! And then you go inside and everyone’s weeping. And then – suddenly – their brother and Eileen’s husband have this huge accident. Out of the blue, you realize your hold on life is tenuous.
How closely do you structure the movie when you write the script?
TD: I write down everything as I hear and see it in my mind – every track, pan, dissolve, crane, piece of music. So the script becomes an aide-memoire, which is why I never do a storyboard. But content dictates form, so I’m not conscious of how or why I structure certain things in a certain way. Mahler said, “One does not compose, one is composed.” And that’s what happens with a film: it will tell its story in the way it wants to be told. And, you know, you want to tell it in the most succinct way, because that’s always much more powerful. You learn how long to hold a shot, for instance – and how long not to hold one. There’s a two-minute take with a static camera in Trilogy, the boy’s bus journey with his mother, which I always call my Angora sweater shot; because by the time it’s over you could have knitted one. There’s a point where a shot dies.
Did you decide ahead of shooting on a specific style for the film, an aesthetic?
TD: If there was an aesthetic, it was that I wanted to show life the way it was back then. It was much more gentle and polite; there was much more of a sense of community. England is very philistine today. Also, I wanted to show real people. The working classes of that time have always been used as comic turns, on the stage or in films like Brief Encounter. Noel Coward couldn’t tell the difference between compassion and condescension. It’s the same in This Happy Breed – chirpy cockneys, you know, chirpy cockney voice: “We’ve survived the war!” It’s about as relevant and as real as the Man in the Moon.
And so I had a specific idea of how I wanted the cast to act. I didn’t want them to act, I wanted them to be. And I said to all of them, you must see the Trilogy first and you must not act. You’ll get the script a week before shooting. Just read it twice, once for sense and once for character, and then don’t read it again. Learn the scenes we’re going to shoot only the night before. We’ll rehearse for ten minutes before we start, and then we’ll do it in under ten takes. Because after ten they get repetitive. And very often we got it in three.
What about the colors in the film? You use a very rich range of browns and earth colors.
TD: I knew I wanted a certain type of color, so we did a test with Kay Laboratories. I wanted tones of red and brown, but not sepia, because you can’t watch sepia, it’s impossible. So we used a coral filter and took out all the primary colors from the decor and costumes, except the red in the lipstick. Then we used a bleach bypass process that leaves the silver nitrate in the print and desaturates the color.
Do you look at paintings for inspiration?
TD: I know nothing about art. I’ve never gone and looked at pictures, I have no vocabulary to discuss them. Obviously there are painters I like. I like the Impressionists, I like Modigliani, Seurat. I think Turner’s paintings of Venice are stunning. But I don’t like, for instance, Picasso. I can’t respond to some triangular woman with her tits on the side of her body. It may be great art, but it doesn’t mean anything to me.
Did you shape the visual sequences to the music, or vice versa?
TD: You never cut the picture to the music. That’s the mistake I made with the two-minute shot in Trilogy. If a scene is visually right, then you can use just a snatch of a song and it’s enough. For instance with Love Is a Many-Splen-dored Thing we did it without the ending chord. That was the editor’s idea. And because the phrase is not finished, your inner ear is waiting for the resolution. And what I’ve found – and it’s what I did here – is that you can resolve it visually with another shot, and then you resolve it aurally in the shot following that.
Are you part of the British cinema tradition?
TD: Well, I don’t feel part of a British tradition, because I don’t think there is one. I think every once in a while we produce films in spite of our lack of film tradition, like Powell and Pressburger or the Ealing comedies or Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing. But one problem is, we share a common language with the Americans, and they’ve always made films better than we have. They see film as film, they see the way it works. Our culture is centered on the spoken word, and the theater has always had more prestige. We’ve produced great theater actors, but we cannot produce good cinema actors. The same with writers. What you get, when your writers come from theater and television, is a record of the spoken event. And that’s not cinema.
Were you influenced by Dennis Potter – by Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective – in your use of popular song as a substitute for dialogue?
TD: [Aghast] No. I saw one episode of The Singing Detective and I found it unwatchable. They’re records of people talking, and I just get bored with that. The music is not integrated into the plot. The best example of how to use music in a film is Meet Me in St. Louis, because everything arises from that plot. It is so perfect. You have to use that as a touchstone.
I heard you quoted as saying you wanted to be reborn as Doris Day.
TD: Well, I think she’s wonderful. Particularly in The Pajama Game. My great passion is Hollywood musicals. That and the symphonic tradition. I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can recognize a symphonic argument, particularly in Mahler, Bruckner, or Shostakovich. And so that really strong idea of how something should be organic, coupled with popular American music, which I was brought up with – that curious combination has been very, very helpful to me. Because the thing one has to steer clear of is sentimentality. You can get away with it in America, for the simple reason that Americans aren’t the least bit embarrassed by sentimentality. The English are terribly embarrassed by it. They think it’s vulgar. Like passion, they think it’s vulgar. What you do is find ways to use a song that negates the sentimentality. There’s something wonderful about songs as over-the-top as “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” but you must use them with images that are not over the top: like Mum being beaten up to “Taking a Chance on Love.” I knew the scene would work as soon as I wrote it.
Why is passion vulgar in England?
TD: Because we’re a very odd nation. There is that innate reserve. I was talking about this to a friend, and she said something I think is true: that the idea of English exoticism has turned in on itself. The reason we’re such a philistine country now, and a lot of the people are so horrible and the place is so dirty, is that we’re no longer a colonial power and we’ve turned our colonialism in on ourselves.
We befoul our own nest because we’ve got nowhere else to do it. I think, too, that the British think passion is a badge of insincerity, that it’s something only “they” do, the dagos abroad. It’s the same as the 18th century ideal of the “gifted amateur.” To be professional is really rather vulgar. And it is exacerbated by our caste system, which is as rigid as anything in India or Japan.
It sounds as if America is the place for you.
TD: Well, you get welcomed in America, whatever class you come from. I remember when Trilogy was going to be shown at the New York Film Festival, a girl asked me when I was coming over. I told her, and she said, “Come and stay in my flat, I’ll be away then.” And it was No. 1, Fifth Avenue, and there were real Matisses on the wall. Extraordinary hospitality.
But the thing I don’t like about America is that in Britain you can fail, and fail honorably, but you can’t over there. There’s a cruel competitive edge. I remember the first time I went to Chicago, I was in a restaurant sitting in one of those half-moon open booths. And I overheard the people in the next booth, who were talking loudly, and I thought they were planning a murder. I was literally on the verge of saying to the waiter, “Look, I think you’d better call the police.” By the time my food came, it transpired that they were opening a graphics office in the next state. I find the cutthroat attitude quite awful.
What films have influenced you?
TD: I can’t say that particular films have influenced me. There are films that I’ve been absolutely knocked out by. When I was 18, I saw Bicycle Thief. And then there was Rocco and His Brothers. Of course they were revelatory at 18, one had never seen anything like them. And then one discovered Bergman and Kurosawa and Ozu, Les Quatre Cent Coups and things like that. But I can’t really say, “Oh, well I saw Donald O’Connor in Francis the Talking Mule and it changed my life.” [laughter]
The reason I love American musicals, though I don’t know how much they influence me, is, one, that I thought America was like that. I thought, when I go I know I’m going to find a place where they all burst into song and dance! Just like that. And I know if I go there often enough, I’ll find it.
The other thing is, they gave me the most enormous pleasure I’ve ever had. When I play the soundtracks now, I can remember where I saw them. It re-creates my childhood. Every time I watch Singin’ in the Rain I cry. Because I remember being taken to see it as a child and seeing this perfect world. Because that’s what the Hollywood musical created. When you grew up in a Liverpool slum and you saw these films, that’s what you thought America was like. Everyone was rich, everyone was beautiful. There was no want, no poverty; it was always summer. That’s very potent. It’s as potent as religion. In fact, for me it’s very much become a religion.
Is Distant Voices, Still Lives the last autobiographical film?
TD: I want to make one more piece of autobiography. It’ll be a 90-minute film, in one part, and it’ll be about the three years that precede the Trilogy. So the story will come full circle. It’ll be about the children who’ve not been explored, my younger brothers and sisters. It’s the three years between the time my father died and when I left primary school, Those three years were just ecstatically happy.
Since you’re gay and you’re not going to have a family of your own, are these films, in a way, your children?
TD: Yes, I think these are my children. I’ve got nothing else.
Do you think that’s sad?
TD: Yes, I do, I think it’s pathetic. It’s far better to actually have a family of your own. Because at the end of the day most people don’t give a toss whether it’s a beautifully made piece of cinema. They don’t care. So you can pour your soul into something, and yes, some people care, but most people don’t. It’d be very nice just to be doing Rambo 27, because you’d make a lot of money and materially you’d have a very nice life. But (a), I haven’t got the talent and (b), I haven’t got the inclination. I’m very puritanical; I want the films to be good films, cinematically. But at the end of the day does anyone care? I remember reading an article about the scherzo in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which is a miracle of the sonata form. But think of all the people in the world who’ve never heard of Mahler and don’t even want to.
When people see Distant Voices, Still Lives, what sort of feeling do you want them to leave with?
TD: I’ve no idea. I was constantly asked at film school, “What is your audience?” I say, “I don’t know.” I make the films because I need to make them. I know that what I want from film is what I want from music: to be emotionally moved and intellectually stimulated. And I think all great art does that. Which is why one constantly returns to the late string quartets of Shostakovich, the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, to Citizen Kane. You go back and you rediscover something every time. And that’s a joy.
11 of Terence Davies’s 12 films
‘Davies wrote the script for Children (1976) while at drama school, and made the film with funding from the British Film Institute; Madonna and Child (1980) was produced at the National Film School as his graduation film; Death and Transfiguration (1983) was made three years later with the backing of the BFI and the Greater London Arts Association. Already in this early work, Davies shows adeptness and precision in his handling of sounds and images and in bringing an extraordinary intensity of emotion to the screen. While bearing the hallmarks of the personal, the evocations of the past – or of different pasts – throughout Children develop a cinematic language which expresses the universality of the experience of remembering.’ — screenonline
the entire film
A discussion between Terence Davies and Mamoun Hassan on his film, Children
Madonna and Child (1980)
‘Between 1976 and 1983, before Terence Davies became the most heralded British filmmaker of his time with his films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, he made this Trilogy of short films. The first, Children, was made during his second year at art school on a minuscule budget and chronicles the life of Davies’ alter-ego, Robert Tucker, from a young adolescent at primary school where he suffers both unprovoked bullying at school and his father’s abusiveness at home, up to his young adulthood. The second, Madonna and Child, finds a middle-aged Tucker stuck in a wearisome, life-sucking office job, suffering guilt over his closeted homosexuality because of his Catholic upbringing. The third, Death & Transfiguration, finds Davies imagining himself as an elderly stroke victim, reminiscing over his life, especially the death of his mother, while preparing for death himself. Of all the films in the Trilogy, Madonna and Child finds Davies most distinctly exploring his central themes, especially those of Catholic guilt, his homosexual fantasies, his relationship with his mother, and his oppressive isolation and devastating depression. But Davies is also displaying a remarkable growth as a directorial technician, and Madonna and Child is full of mature, cinematic devices. One of the most notable is his pervasive use of high contrast black & white, which moves the film into a darker world than the more gradated grays of Children. The high-contrast galvanizes scenes such as when Tucker knocks on the door to an exclusive gay club, whose framing and look is echoed later during Tucker’s confession scene at Church.’ — Forced Perspective
Death and Transfiguration (1983)
‘The anguished finale of the Terence Davies Trilogy opens with the death of Robert Tucker’s beloved mother, jumping forward in time to show an elderly Robert bedridden in hospital (an astonishing appearance by Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Brambell). Fragments of his past – a school nativity play, male physique magazines, a tender moment with mum – build to an unforgettable closing scene.’ — bfi
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
‘The relative scarcity of films by writer-director Davies – whether owing to lack of funding or the obstinacy of a vision that brooks no compromise – is one of the great tragedies of British cinema. His first feature, which traces the life of a Catholic family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, is widely regarded as being among the finest depictions of British working-class life on film. It is divided into two chapters: the first reflects the trauma of war and growing up under an abusive father, the second, the struggle of his children to achieve happier lives as they build their own marriages and families following his death. The film is bleached of primary colours so that the action unfolds largely in drab greys and browns, but is enriched by a backdrop of radio, film and musical samples that reflect the wider narrative of a city re-establishing itself after the war.’ — The Guardian
The Long Day Closes (1992)
‘The Long Day Closes is the most gloriously cinematic expression of the unique sensibility of Terence Davies, widely celebrated as Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Suffused with both enchantment and melancholy, this autobiographical film takes on the perspective of a quiet, lonely boy growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s. But rather than employ a straightforward narrative, Davies jumps in and out of time, swoops into fantasies and fears, summons memories and dreams. A singular filmic tapestry, The Long Day Closes is an evocative, movie- and music-besotted portrait of the artist as a young man.’ — The Criterion Collection
The Neon Bible (1995)
‘The evolution of Davies’s career up to this point would make one wonder whether fragmented memories were all he was capable of summoning. His next film, though a wild departure in many ways, did not provide easy answers. The Neon Bible (1995), adapted from John Kennedy Toole’s slim bildungsroman about a sensitive boy’s coming-of-age in the deep American South, represented a striking change of milieu for Davies, yet many of the director’s already established hallmarks were in full view: taciturn young male protagonist, colorful and more outspoken older relative, the tyrannies of bullies and teachers, the comfort of movies, the birth of religious skepticism. If this alien landscape introduced a new (and probably healthy) awkwardness in Davies’s filmmaking, it also resulted in a singular hybrid of Davies’s poetic British lyricism and stoic American gothic. Davies’s long, steady tracking shots and unbroken single takes register as dissociated and surreal when reconfigured into a Georgia-shot tale that features one character’s dramatic descent into madness and another’s violent, climactic killing.’ — Roger Ebert
The House of Mirth (2000)
‘There are some films that are such pure, unpretentious exemplars of the medium—that are slavish only to their own being and rationale—that of course they were destined to be either forgotten or gently patted on the head before being sent away. Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth is such a film, one so exquisitely wrought and seamlessly shaped that it almost needs to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass as though a diamond. The problem with such subtle artistry is that you actually need to be looking at it to notice its flawlessness; that might have been too tall an order in 2000, when Davies’s film was released up against such flashier gems as Requiem for a Dream, Dancer in the Dark, and Bamboozled, all of which, for better or worse, were embracing and foregrounding new forms of moviemaking. The House of Mirth was hardly such a headline-maker: its greatest claim to fame outside of rarefied, art-house circles seemed to be its dramatic star turn from The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson. Otherwise this was merely the latest offering from a critically acclaimed British filmmaker whose difficulty in financing his few-and-far-between projects had hardly made him a household name with audiences, and for some the film’s origins as an Edith Wharton novel gave it the whiff of a high-school requisite.’ — Reverse Shot
Of Time and the City (2008)
‘Of Time and the City is Terence Davies’ first documentary — although “documentary” is hardly an adequate description of this fierce and loving film-essay on his native Liverpool — and, more significantly, his first film in eight years. Any new film from Davies is an event in its own right given his status as arguably Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Yet he’s someone who has been almost unable to work in a film culture that’s essentially inimical to the kind of filmmaking he represents. Of course, he’s not the only British filmmaker to suffer from this — whatever happened to Carine Adler (Under the Skin, 1997), or Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999; Morvern Callar, 2001)? — but the situation with Davies is a particularly bitter one simply because of the stature of his work. There is plenty for unsympathetic viewers to resist in Davies’ idealisation of the past. For one thing, he doesn’t hide his distaste if not disdain for subsequent decades. Near the end of the film he offers us some scenes of inner-city night life, of the nightclubbing, pub-crawling, binge-drinking contemporary leisure culture, scenes that are a clear rebuke to the world of the present. Even the footage he chooses from the seventies serves to emphasise the decline in civic life, with the demolition of the tenements of Davies’ youth and the move — keyed ironically to Peggy Lee singing “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — of the working-class into high-rise tower blocks. Gone are the children at play in street or playground, the crowds enjoying themselves at the New Brighton seaside. Instead, lonely figures wander down empty streets, and the camera picks out the ugliness of the graffiti-strewn buildings and mourns the demolished old residences.’ — Bright Lights Film Journal
Terence Davies talks about his film, Of Time and the City
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
‘The agony and perverse ecstasy of unrequited love permeate Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea. Adapted by the director from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play and set in a dank, depressed London still recovering from the Blitz, it tells the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a 40ish beauty dashed on the rocks of masochistic passion. She has left her older husband, Sir William (Simon Russell Beale), a judge still under the thumb of his ironhearted mother (Barbara Jefford), and their life of stifling middle-class conformity to move into a dingy rented flat with the young lover, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), a former fighter pilot, charming and exciting in bed, with whom she has become obsessed. Though not without glimmerings of conscience, Freddie is feckless and inconstant. He cannot reciprocate Hester’s romantic intensity, and when he spends her birthday weekend on a “golfing trip” she methodically tries to gas herself. That’s where Davies’ sublime evocation of amour fou, the hallmarks of which are self-confinement and humiliation, begins.’ — Film Comment
The Deep Blue Sea: Behind the scenes, on-set footage
Sunset Song (2015)
‘What is most surprising about Terence Davies’ film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song is how close the director seems to his material. The novel, published in 1932, is the story of a sensitive young woman growing up in a rugged, rural community in the north-east of Scotland just before the First World War. It is a world away from the working-class Liverpool of the director’s own childhood in the late 1940s, so movingly depicted in his autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and yet the two films sit together as companion pieces. They are both deeply felt family dramas with the same mix of lyricism and extreme brutality. They both feature abusive father-figures who terrorise their wives and children. There is plenty of music and communal singing in each of the films. The interior of the little farmhouse in which the family lives in Sunset Song isn’t so different from that of the home depicted in Distant Voices. Sunset Song may be uneven but it’s a film no other British director would have made in the same way as Davies. One of the reasons Davies has struggled to get his work financed is that he resists the pressure from interfering front-office executives to tailor his movies in the way that they demand. His films, whether they’re autobiographical or adapted from Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth) or Grassic Gibbon novels, or even if they’re nostalgic, newsreel-based documentaries such as Of Time and the City, always feel utterly personal. His new feature is entirely consistent with its predecessors both in its intimacy and in its ability to be lyrical and harrowing at the very same time.’ — The Independent
Agyness Deyn and Terence Davies talk Sunset Song
A Quiet Passion (2016)
‘Just a few months after Terence Davies’ last drama, Sunset Song, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, his new one, A Quiet Passion, made its debut at Berlin. How did he complete it so quickly? Maybe the trick was that he shot almost all of it in one location with just a handful of actors. The film is a biopic of Emily Dickinson (Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon), the great American poet who spent much of her adult life as a recluse in her parents’ house in Amherst, Massachusetts, so there is some logic to the action being confined to a couple of adjoining rooms and a sunny front garden. But Davies breaks several other rules of the literary biopic in ways that are harder to justify. The acting and camerawork can be stilted, the actors are decades older than the people they are playing, the dialogue is crammed so tightly with polished witticisms and epigrams that it sounds like Noël Coward arm-wrestling Oscar Wilde, and the choice of scenes seems so random that Davies could have picked them out of a hat: some of the most important people in Dickinson’s life, including her sister-in-law and a supportive editor, are reduced to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos. But while there is plenty about A Quiet Passion that doesn’t work, Davies’ willfully demanding curio is so unconventional and sincere that it’s easy to admire, and it has a few moments of magic which make it all worthwhile.’ — BBC
Terence Davies. At work. On ‘A Quiet Passion’
p.s. Hey. ** JM, Hi. Well, thank you. I never even read the Bible, so you’re one up on me. He’s kind of like an evil Kardashian to me. The pedal’s to the metal on my end, but only for a couple of more days maybe. What are you squeezing out? ** David Ehrenstein, Hi, D. I personally have always considered Jesus to be a meta-Santa Claus kind of construct without Santa’s charm. Never saw that Pasolini. Maybe I should try to get into his work for the dozenth time via it. Thanks for the Jesus backstory stuff. I’m always curious about how such a superstar came about. Nice panning shot in that ‘Cool Hand Luke’ clip. And that was the dad on ‘The Waltons’ in there, huh. ** Robert Siek, Hi. Ah, West Hollywood, well, lots of places to eat within walking distance. Maybe you’ll find WH charming. I tend to try to drive around it when I’m out and about in LA, but you know me. Three days is definitely really quick for LA. Best in that case to stay on the move if you want to get a feel for the place, but hang time in Silverlake/Echo/Los Feliz remains a recommendation. That is a horrifying dream. Jesus looks scary in that kind of Charles Manson kind of way. I hope you have a most splendid day too, and I’d love to hear how LA treated you. We’re just going to miss each other as I’ll be there at the very beginning of Feb. to show PGL. Take care! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Never saw ‘The Passion of Christ’. I tend to stay away from Christianity-milking films because I know next to zip about that religion. I hope it works out with Schroeder, obviously. I haven’t heard one good thing about ‘Vice’ other than props for my friend’s turn in it. Everyone, Want to know what Mr. Erickson thinks of that new Cheney-centric film ‘Vice’? Well, easy peasy. I don’t know what CBD is, so I would guess it’s not on sale every ten feet here. Roasting chestnuts are, however. I’m assuming CBD isn’t a nickname for roasting chestnuts. Chestnuts Burning Daily? ** Bill, Ah, you’re a Grinch-y guy. That makes sense somehow. I haven’t done a tree and presents in years, but I do like doing that, I don’t know why. There’s a little plastic Xmas tree with little fake presents underneath it in the entranceway to my building at the moment, and I do admit it does some kind of tiny, positive thing to my heart when I pass by it. Thanks about the crunch. It does seem to be doing what crunches are supposed to. I’ve seen that book on a table or two here. Perhaps I’ll lift it and flip around. ** Sypha, Yeah, I thought the ‘big’ guy seemed like post fodder of a certain timely sort, and it doesn’t take much for me to want to swipe hundreds of gifs and stack them up. That Doobie Brothers track is a cover version of the original by The Byrds which is much, much, much better. But memory’s coziness output always wins. ** KeatoV, Your new name configuration reminds me of something, but I can’t remember what that is for the life of me. Christianity is just one of the weirdest, longest lasting fads in the world to me. Are you reviewing what I think you’re reviewing, and, if so, how did you see it, and maybe I don’t want know how because that’s not good if it’s via the way I fear, but, all that aside, if I guessed right, thank you! ** _Black_Acrylic, Ben, sir, maestro. Oh, right, I remember you did an interview for that doc. They wanted to interview me, but I didn’t end up doing one for reasons I can’t remember. I suppose that doc must be on youtube or Vimeo. I’ll go look. Christmas wrapping? How particular and fetish-y are you about the wrapping you use and the precision with which you wrap things? ** Misanthrope, Hi. Oh, so CBD is related to pot? Okay, mystery solved. Hm. Maybe your body is desperately remembering the med’s effect and able to fake it for a brief amount of time. Either that or you’re cured. So unless I’m getting the news wrong over here, it sure does seem like you’re going to shut down, job-wise, starting tomorrow. If so, I hope for silver linings galore. Oh, wait, you’re ‘excepted’, never mind. I should read whole comments before I leap forth with my responses. Then enjoy the five days of freedom, buddy. ** Josh, Hi, Josh! Well, ditto! ** Nik, Hi, N. Yeah, like I said elsewhere, I honestly know nothing about the Jesus dude, but maybe ignorance is post-making bliss in that case. Satan, him, I do know a bit about him. Excellent if Conjunctions lets you have some kind of creative input! I will start crossing my fingers when late January appears on the horizon. Xmas plans … eating a buche. I think that’s entirely it. I’m going to the Xmas makeover — ‘Santa Claus is a Zombie’ — of Paris’s haunted house attraction on Saturday night. That’s probably the most Xmas-y things will get. You? Do you do the family getting together thing or an equivalent? Bon Friday! ** Right. Again, as is frequently the case, someone here or somewhere asked me to bring back the dead Terence Davies post, and today has ended up being the day the restoration transpires. Enjoy it and yourselves. See you tomorrow.