Originally published in Senses of Cinema issue 84, September 2017.
“Only Through Time Time is Conquered” 1
Early in Of Time and the City (2008), Terence Davies’ documentary collage that brings the postwar Liverpool of his youth and dreams to vivid life, he offers us the key to unlock his career. “We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it,” he says in intimate voiceover, as if whispering this truth directly into our ears. In the nine films he has made during his 40-year career, Davies has repeatedly wrestled with this riddle. He has said: “I make films in order to come to terms with my family history.”2 But Davies also makes films to come to terms with himself. He is not only the writer and director of his films, but often their most fascinating subject.
Born in Liverpool in 1945 into a working-class Catholic family, Davies is the youngest of ten children, seven surviving. His early, semi-autobiographical films – The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984),3 Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and The Long Day Closes (1992) – form a tapestry of moving memories drawn from a traumatic childhood and early adulthood. Viewers of these films become intimately acquainted with life in the terrace at 18 Kensington Street where Davies grew up, and with the recurring facts of his autobiography – the antithetical influences of a violent father and an adoring mother; school bullying; his loss of faith; and confusion about his sexuality. But as Michael Koresky points out in his 2014 monograph about the filmmaker, it does Davies a disservice to reduce him to the conventional view of a “traumatised artist.”4
Davies has said that for him the past is not a foreign country, but is always present.5 This is true both of his life and his work. Davies’ sensibilities, both personal and aesthetic, are often described as old-fashioned. Yet despite claiming that he often feels repelled by the modern world,6 and is uncomfortable with change,7 Davies does not idealise the past. His painful longing rarely takes place through a purely nostalgic prism. A complex engagement is shaped by his desire to belong within spaces that we know were often hostile towards him and increased his isolation. As Michael Sicinski has asked, why does Davies “pine for a cultural moment that, as dominant historical narratives would have it at least, is among the previous century’s most conformist and repressive”?8
Davies’ complex relationship with his own past has translated into a cinematic obsession with the nature of time and memory as non-linear and emotionally associative. “You remember the intense moment, not the things around it,”9 he has said. Davies investigates this terrain with a distinct aesthetic: fragments and juxtapositions; emotional continuity over narrative continuity; slow pans and tracking shots; elegant dissolves; and constructed tableaux. Davies is an ardent admirer of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1944); he reads the poems once a month10 and many of his sequences visualise the overlap of time that Eliot describes in the opening lines of Burnt Norton, the first quartet: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.”
Despite these philosophical concerns, Davies’s films are not exercises in abstraction. Each is grounded in emotional truth, often drawn from his experience. Davies is a filmmaker concerned with authenticity of feeling above all else. He has said, “I remember not just what the fifties looked like, I remember what it felt like, and that’s a different thing.”11 Rooted in a sincere representation of the past, Davies’ films feel like real life; even when sequences and shots have an expressly artificial form, they are defined by recognisable emotions. Such a profusion of feeling can make analysis challenging yet it also provides an invaluable way to understand Davies’ preoccupations. Ultimately, his films resonate because they express insight and truth about human experience. For Davies, that truth is found within intimate, interior spaces, and around the family, which he has described as “the source of everything that is wonderful and terrible in our lives.”12 Although the line between Davies and his characters is now less transparent than it was in his early films, our understanding of Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea (2011) and of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016) is amplified by what we know Davies sees of his own story in theirs.
Davies’ films, including his adaptations of literary texts such as The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000), are also informed by a lifetime of his feeling like an outsider. Davies has repeatedly described himself as a spectator, not as a participant in the world.13 Characters in his films often occupy a similar position – cast out from society, or positioned on the margins, looking in. For Davies, being homosexual has certainly amplified his difference. After a childhood of fervent belief and prayer, Davies experienced a major crisis of faith when he discovered his sexuality.14 Seeking comfort in the church and finding none, Davies broke away in his early 20s, simply walking out in the middle of Sunday mass and never looking back. As the Trilogy makes clear, the ever-present yoke between desire and shame was formative. Davies has accepted being gay as a fact of his identity, but has also been quite open about how it has compounded his isolation.15 Koresky has argued that while Davies’ films do not fit into an identifiably queer tradition, each is shaped by a “queer sensibility”16 that extends beyond text and subtext, into his overall aesthetic approach and rejection of narrative normativity.
“From the Place You Would Be Likely to Come From”
Davies is frequently celebrated as Britain’s greatest living filmmaker yet he occupies a complicated position within his national cinema, a sort of outsider status that mirrors his personal experience. Securing finance has often been a problem, and has included rather public rows with funding bodies.17 Audiences beyond festivals and retrospectives are small. Davies’ work is so personal and tonally singular as to be an anomaly within an industry he sees as far too concerned with aping American tastes and interests.
While critics have described Davies’ early memory films as ‘realist’ because of their roots in the experiences of the working-class, they have no place, stylistically, alongside the so-called ‘kitchen sink dramas’ of the postwar period. Davies sees these films as failing to truly capture the depth and warmth of working-class life as he lived it. He describes films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962) as “relentlessly dreary”.18 Davies is not, however, strictly a filmmaker in opposition to this tradition. His films, it can be argued, stand alone, repeatedly resisting easy classification, bypassing convention, and refusing what is popular. Davies’ films are best defined, as Koresky has explained, as constituting a cinema of paradoxes, “between beauty and ugliness, the real and the artificial, progression and tradition, motion and stasis”;19 we often respond to them in the same way, with an excess of contradictory feelings.
Davies’ films revel in his love of cinema and music. If Catholicism offered the younger Davies regular distress, the movie houses (of which there were eight in walking distance from his home when he was a boy), provided frequent rapture and succor. Davies’ status as a spectator also found a natural home here. His first film experience, at seven, was Singin’ in the Rain. From there, he gorged on movies “with a frequency that would shame a sinner.”20 This exuberant cinephilia soaks every frame he has created, evoking the shared, communal pleasures of his Liverpool youth. Music is also an essential ingredient. Davies makes luscious use of classical music and the popular songs of the periods in which his films are set, but little aural reference to the times in which we are now living. Importantly, Davies juxtaposes music and images to draw out subtextual meaning. We see this first in the opening scene of Death and Transfiguration (1983), during the mother’s funeral, scored by Doris Day’s “It All Depends on You”; and later, in Distant Voices, Still Lives, as the mother is beaten while Ella Fitzgerald sings “Taking A Chance on Love.” Davies worships the cultural products he discovered as a child – Hollywood musicals, the American songbook, Ealing comedies, and the ‘women’s films’ of the 1940s and 1950s,21 which all find a way into the fabric of his films.
“Home is Where One Starts From”
Davies left school when he was 15 and worked for ten years as a clerk in a shipping office, followed by a period in an accountancy firm. This was a period of soul-crushing misery for him,22 reflected in the short-to-medium length films that make up what we now call The Terence Davies Trilogy – Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983).23 Made in the years that followed his leaving office life behind, the Trilogy firmly established Davies’ key narrative and aesthetic concerns. Emotionally brutal, there is little that can be described as sentimental reverie for the past in this black-and-white triptych. Yet the Trilogy is lyrical in its form and style. Set in Liverpool, it is wrought from Davies’ desperate need to escape home, and the pain involved in this transition. Reverberating with feelings of guilt and shame, the Trilogy is also an overwhelmingly bleak account of coming to terms with being gay and Catholic.
In 1971, at the age of 26, Davies left Liverpool for the first time and entered the Coventry School of Drama with aspirations of being an actor. While enrolled, he wrote the screenplay for Children, which he directed when he left drama school with funding from the now defunct BFI Production Board. Davies found a pleasure behind the camera similar to what he experienced when watching a film.24 Moving onto the National Film School, he completed Madonna and Child as his graduating project. Three years later, with funding from the Greater London Arts Association and the BFI, Davies closed the Trilogy with Death and Transfiguration.
Davies’ engagement with his past throughout the Trilogy coalesces in the creation of an alter ego, Robert Tucker. Robert is introduced to us in Children as a bullied schoolboy, alienated from his classmates and acutely aware of his difference. What becomes immediately clear is that Davies is uninterested in a conventional recollection of his past – he fixes memories together with emotional glue rather than linear logic. He moves fluidly back and forth between scenes of Robert as a teenager (Philip Mawdsley) and as a young man of 24 (Robin Hooper). While Robert is predominantly middle-aged (Terry O’Sullivan) in Madonna and Child, by the trilogy’s conclusion, Davies shuffles between the past, present, and future – we see middle-aged Robert (O’Sullivan again) remembering himself at eleven (Iain Munro), then imagining himself as a dying old man (Wilfred Brambell).
Davies was effectively a filmmaker in training when he made the Trilogy but it impresses with its sophistication. He has said that on the set of Children, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it from what I felt was right.”25 Yet his visual instincts were already fully formed. Slow camerawork, attention to empty space, and stark images of melancholy beauty, each aiding him to build a symphony of explosive feelings under an austere surface. In one such sequence in Children, Davies cuts from the young Robert’s growing awareness of a boy at the swimming pool, to Robert at 24, in a doctor’s office being given tablets for depression, and asked, “Still no interest in girls, Robbie?” These temporal transitions draw emotional cues between Robert’s loneliness and its root cause. We understand he is gay, and unhappy about it, without it ever being expressly stated. This affect is accentuated when we see him sitting alone in his flat as a young man, and then alone in his room as a boy.
The Trilogy also introduces two familiar Davies figures – the adoring mother, and the violent father. In Children, father’s death brings relief, momentarily. Davies highlights his own confusion over this major event – Robert refuses to see his father’s body, and hides his face in the bedroom curtains as the hearse arrives at the house. Traces of this sequence can be seen in A Quiet Passion, in Davies’ framing of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) observing her father’s funeral cortege from her bedroom window. In Children’s final sequence, Davies traps Robert inside another window frame, crying, as a crane shot pulls out from the house. It’s a bleak conclusion, effectively leaving Robert imprisoned in his secret torment.
Despair extends into middle age. In Madonna and Child Davies employs powerful juxtapositions to magnify the extent of Robert’s pain and confusion. In one instance, we see Robert’s now elderly mother telling him he is a “good boy” as he delivers her nightly cocoa. A series of transitions across time, to Robert alone crying on the ferry, to Robert at the office, and then to Robert sneaking out of the house to visit a gay club, ends in the confessional. While ‘sins’ are listed off, Davies approaches this moment with humour, cutting to a scene, real or imagined, in which Robert performs fellatio another man. This contrast between what Robert is saying and what Robert is doing only increases our sense of his struggle.
Throughout the Trilogy, windows are a source of natural light, rupturing the stark tonal palette. After his mother’s death in the opening of Death and Transfiguration, Robert is sent back into his past, remembering a Christmas scene, viewed from outside the window of a pub. It’s the first of many of Davies’ filmed group sing-alongs, but instead of strengthening Robert’s place in the community, it magnifies his outsider status. Robert fears that this loneliness will be with him his entire life. “When the light goes out, God is dead,” he tells us in voiceover as an 80-year-old. As a teenager, the community provided by God only served to increase his despair and alienation. Davies leaves us with Robert on his deathbed, reaching out to the white light flooding through the window – for his mother, for God, for something other than this profoundly lonely, imagined death.
“Footfalls Echo in the Memory”
In 1984, Davies published a novel, Hallelujah Now, in which he continued to grapple with guilt about his sexuality. It mixed autobiography and fiction in a similar three-part structure to the Trilogy. But as his following feature films show, this was not Davies final word on his past. Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes are films of incredible emotional power. Each recreates Davies’ memories of his childhood by fixing them to a specific physical space – the family’s home in Kensington Street, Liverpool, which he brings vividly to life. Throughout both films, Davies endows the physical space of the house with the weight of the presence and absence of the bodies that lived and breathed in it.
Distant Voices, Still Lives’ opening sequence provides a thrilling exposition of this idea. We hear the sounds of thunder and rain, then the voice of a BBC announcer reading the shipping forecast. An establishing shot rests on the front door of a terrace house for several seconds, before we see the mother open the door to collect the milk bottles on the steps. When she re-enters the house, calling the children to get up, the camera pauses on the empty staircase. This stasis emphasises the sense of the house as a void that will soon fill with ghosts from the past. Their absence is profoundly felt; we hear the family’s voices and their footsteps echoing on the staircase before we see their bodies. Davies is investigating how memories might be represented in the cinema.26 Here, he envisions them as pieces that reach out from the darkness and congeal.
Winning Davies the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1988, Distant Voices, Still Lives, as its bifurcated titles suggests, began life as two separate films (made two years apart). Each half, however, is concerned with the same characters. Davies’ focus is his family’s life with a tyrannical father (Pete Postlethwaite), and the aftermath of his death, for his wife (Freda Downie) and three adult children, Eileen (Angela Walsh), Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Tony (Dean Williams). Davies, not a character in this film, was only six-years-old when his father died, yet his presence as a spectator is felt in the film’s formal elements. We are always aware of the camera’s presence here.27 In Distant Voices we see this to powerful effect in the glorious tableau composition of the family posed as if for a photo on Eileen’s wedding day. Slowness and stillness make us aware of the father’s physical absence and his detached presence in a photo on the wall behind them (a photo of the real Tommy Davies). Filling the gaps with emotional cues, Davies provides vignettes from the past: Maisie remembering their father’s violence, Tony recalling his indifference, their father sick in hospital. We return to Eileen’s wedding, where she cries, “I want my dad.”
In Still Lives, the family is unburdened in the aftermath of the father’s death. The colour palette is still desaturated and textural,28 but this section has an overall more elegiac quality. Yet life is not without complication. Eileen and her husband live with her grandmother in a cramped flat. She is unhappy, and we see this in the extended sequence at the pub after Maisie’s daughter’s christening, in which the most rousing of the many sing-alongs is Eileen’s solo performance of the Johnny Mercer standard, “I Wanna Be Around.” Often these sing-alongs function within Davies’ films to express characters’ dreams of escape; the intensity of Eileen’s expression suggests her desperate desire for a way out.
By the end of Distant Voices, Still Lives, Tony will marry Rose (Antonia Mallen) and move forward into his own life. The final sequence – as the rest of the family, no longer a complete unit, walks mother back home – suggests Davies’ mixed feelings about this evolution, and we sense his absence from the picture more acutely than before. Davies has spoken to this puzzle, explaining that “you don’t want the family to change, but the family will change, and by the time those changes have taken place, the haven has becomes a prison, and you’re too old to do anything about it.”29
In The Long Day Closes, Davies returns himself to the picture, covering similar terrain to Children, but with a far less grim tone. The point of view belongs to a new alter ego, the introspective Bud (Leigh McCormack), who is ten years old. Bud was Davies’ nickname when he was a child, and Davies has recalled the years after his father’s death, up until he was 11, as the happiest of his life.30 We experience this joy through his close relationship with his mother (Marjorie Yates) and his older sister Helen (Ayse Owen) who he calls Tich. Davies’ memories of Friday nights in particular, when Tich’s friends would congregate on the house, suffuse The Long Day Closes with the beauty of childhood discovery and rich emotional detail. “Loved Fridays. I can smell them even now.”31
We have been here before, but The Long Day Closes has a dream-like quality from its opening scene. We see a dark street, the Kensington Street sign on a wall. Nat King Cole sings Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”; the unearthly beauty of Cole’s vocal juxtaposed with this dereliction. Davies pauses on a house in ruins, which he will now resurrect. A boy calls out, “Mum, mum! Can I go to the pictures?” and the house transforms. While the family home is patently a sanctuary in The Long Day Closes, Davies also uses the space to underline Bud’s status as a spectator. Bud is constantly watching, observing rather than participating. Davies has said, “I did spend a lot of time looking and listening to my family. That’s what I did. Because when you are the youngest of ten … you don’t very often get the chance to speak. I mean, you just listen.”32
One such observant moment in which Bud watches a shirtless bricklayer (Kirk McLaughlin) working in the house next door leads to sexual self-discovery. Bud, positioned on the windowsill is indeed on the precipice of change. The lovely days of childhood are slipping away just like the falling rose petals in the film’s elegant opening credits sequence. Bud’s move to high school is presented as a time of personal struggle. Like Robert in Children, he is called a “fruit” and beaten. Davies explores this agony through Bud’s fervent prayers. On one such occasion, Bud imagines the handsome bricklayer as the body of Christ on the cross. Always, Bud is rescued from trauma by moments of ecstatic engagement with the screen – his emerging sexuality tempered by his cinematic awakening. Replicating Davies’ own obsession, the cinema becomes Bud’s refuge; a communal and religious experience, a way to transform the limitations of his everyday reality.
“Turning Shadow into Transient Beauty”
On the surface, at least, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes marked the end of Davies’ autobiographical cycle. A new phase of creativity announced itself in the films that followed, as Davies turned his attention to adapting other people’s material. His adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published The Neon Bible (1995) and Edith Wharton’s American classic The House of Mirth (2000), highlights the importance of interpretation, or as Wendy Everett calls it “the act of choosing”33 when working from existing material – a consideration not only of how a text is adapted for the screen but why it is chosen at all. In adapting these texts, Davies does more than just tell someone else’s story. He makes both extensions of his own.
Something of a transitional film, The Neon Bible was met with lukewarm reviews. The novel, written by Toole when he was 16 but only published in 1989, 20 years after his death, was attractive for Davies because of its vivid language and the visual imagery of the prose.34 But Davies’ screenplay uses Toole’s text sparingly – he retains main events and the general form, trimming dialogue and many plot points.35
The Neon Bible follows the experiences of David, a sensitive boy aged ten (Drake Bell), then 15 (Jacob Tierney), in small-town Georgia in the 1940s. Davies finds unity between David’s story and his own – working-class life, the oppressive hypocrisies of religion, which manifests flamboyantly in the figure of the travelling evangelist Bobbie Lee Taylor (Leo Burmester), the violent father, Frank (Denis Leary), and the figure of feminine strength represented by David’s Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands). A visual cue is drawn from the film’s opening scene back to the imagery of The Long Day Closes. Posing David on a train, looking out a window, Davies connects his yearning to Bud’s.
Davies retains Toole’s first person narration, by allowing David a voiceover that provides both intimacy and an awareness of the story’s artificiality. Indeed, like The Long Day Closes, The Neon Bible has a dream-like quality in which we are always conscious that we are outside the action, observing. As a memory film, The Neon Bible allowed Davies to continue experimenting with movements between time and space. The film begins and ends with David at 15, on a train, waiting to escape town after he has killed a man. We are aware of that train, and of where David is headed throughout the entire film. We hear the sound of the vehicle when David ages from ten to 15. While it is an intrusion into present events,36 it is more importantly an aural cue for Davies’ sequential shifts in memory. As Davies has shown in the film’s opening, the train’s window is the vehicle for memory here – a portal in and out of the past.
In 1997, Davies’ mother passed away, aged 90. He has recounted this as a difficult time personally and professionally,37 but it also marks a major shift in Davies’ narrative concerns. Davies viewed his mother as the source of his family’s strength. The fortitude of women in difficult times must have been foremost in Davies’ mind when he embarked on an adaptation of The House of Mirth, the first of four films he has made featuring female protagonists. Achieving far greater critical acclaim, The House of Mirth strengthened Davies’ unique approach to period filmmaking. Beneath its gorgeous, colour-saturated façade, rages a brutal, near-barbaric world of oppressive social rituals and expectations; a “horror movie”,38 where words are deadly weapons. In this way, and in its description of the strangulating effect of Lily Bart’s (Gillian Anderson) social alienation, The House of Mirth is an essential Davies film.
The House of Mirth is the first of Davies’ films not to work on the fragmented logic of memory. It announces its linearity early, in title cards that tell us “New York 1905.” Rather than just giving us a time and place into which to fix the film’s action, the significance of this title card only becomes apparent by the film’s end when another appears: “New York 1907.” Davies has spoken of fighting for these bookends, to indicate the speed with which Lily’s life is destroyed.39 The momentum that builds inevitably to the film’s tragic conclusion, as one portend dissolves into another, underlines how stifling this linear representation of time is compared to the open, fragmented approach Davies has previously employed. Within this tightly framed action, Lily has little chance of escape or self-actualisation. In this way, The House of Mirth is unique among Davies’ films. When Lily declares to Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), “I am on the rubbish heap!” she understands that her situation is an utterly hopeless one.
Davies uses mise-en-scène to highlight Lily’s increasing entrapment. Her aunt’s home, where Lily lives and is expected to meet with prospective suitors, is a dark, oppressive space. Within these interiors, Davies often positions Lily in passive poses, like a figure in a portrait by John Singer Sargent. This underlines her commodified status as “a wonderful spectacle”, a consumer who indulges her love of luxury and leisure. Lily’s bedroom is especially shadowy – there is little light, and she often closes curtains and blinds, tightening the already restrictive noose around her.
The rich emotionality of Davies’ musical choices, including Alessandro Marcello’s “Oboe Concerto in D Minor”, which opens the film and becomes an unofficial theme for Lily, to the romance of Alexander Borodin’s “String Quartet No. 2 in D Major”, heightens the tragedy as it unfolds. A masterful sequence in which the camera pans around Lily’s aunt’s house, now empty and tomblike, incongruously suggests the passing of time in this barren space through the lyrical elegance of ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte.
But Davies use of diegetic sound, often less commented on, is no less inspired. The film’s soundscape is subdued. Comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence (1993) are inevitable, and Davies matches the earlier film in its sumptuous detail, and mastery of film form. Unlike Scorsese’s film, Davies omits voiceover narration, denying Lily the chance to direct her story. She lacks narrative authority and control, which Davies stresses through the inclusion of ticking clocks that regularly puncture the silence as Lily waits and time passes by without her. It is an increasingly ominous sound, as she inches closer to her death, deciding to act only once time has run out. Lily’s story concludes with an atmosphere of desperate, exquisite tragedy, perhaps amplified by Davies’ own grief for his mother. It is a tone that lifts in Davies’ subsequent films. While each is shaped by darkness, light and hope also creep in.
“The Houses are All Gone Under the Sea”
After The House of Mirth, Davies was effectively unemployed. Once again he found himself trying to get projects started, including the long-simmering adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, Sunset Song, and failing. Davies’ past returned with a commission to make a film about Liverpool as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations, a title bestowed on the city in 2008. Rejecting the idea of another fictional film, he decided on a documentary, in the style of Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942). Unsurprisingly, Davies took an even more singular approach. Of Time and the City is both a first person historical essay and a visual poem. Combining archival and newsreel footage, it is layered with Davies’ intimate voiceover of readings from Eliot, Dickinson, and Chekhov, personal recollections, and his carefully curated musical accents. It is both warm and biting; a melancholy (farewell) love letter, which is also, like so much of Davies’ work, very funny.
Of Time and the City synthesises many of Davies’ concerns. As he explains, with this film, he is showing us “the country of the imagination”40 not strictly the city he knew. Davies coaxes us as the curtain opens: “Come closer now and see your dreams.” Aware that he is in control, and that this journey is mostly into his own past, he corrects himself: “Come closer now and see mine.” The film is “a mindscape more than a landscape”41 – consisting of Davies’ memories of growing up in Liverpool, and the seismic shifts we know he experienced. These personal earthquakes resonate in the physical changes the city has undergone since those halcyon days.
It is from this wreckage that Davies excavates the most profound truth. His are imperfect memories. Of Time and the City is characterised by a brutal absence of nostalgia. Davies shows us daily life – women cooking and cleaning, children playing, visits to the beach, a man shaving. Simply, this was his community. Davies describes Christmas, the food, the treats, and the sense of wonder. He asks: “Do you remember? Do you? Will you ever forget?” Davies looks inward too. He shows us his “years wasted in useless prayer”; his discovery of cinema, then of actor Dirk Bogarde, and with him, his desire for men. There is the rise of The Beatles (whom Davies loathes), and the breakdown of the city’s architecture into a new form. By the 1970s, the film shifts to colour, and Davies declares himself “a born again atheist.” We see Liverpool as a city in decline; a series of fragments that can only be temporarily rehabilitated.
While Davies claims not to be a political filmmaker,42 his personal recollections throughout Of Time and the City are often polemical. Reference to the Korean War and his brother who was spared service because of illness; scorn for the money wasted on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, while her subjects lived in slums on rations; the demolition of terrace houses for colourless high-rise council estates. Peggy Lee sings “The Folks Who Live On the Hill” while buildings are demolished. Unlike it might be in a Dennis Potter film, here the song is used with the utmost sincerity, highlighting a primal betrayal of the dreams of ordinary people. But it’s not only Davies’ own past shattered by these developments; it is a communal one. As Davies says, “municipal architecture is not Elysian.” And while the terrace that Davies grew up in was also not ideal, the silent image of a window, smashed and unhinged during the razing, becomes a symbol of an irrevocably shattered worldview.
Speaking of how his remaining siblings continue to reside in Liverpool, Davies has indicated that this pain continues. “I don’t go up that often, because Liverpool is full of memories … I look around and think this is not the place I grew up in and loved.”43 Of Time and the City feels like a eulogy, not only to a changed city, but also to Davies’ cinematic engagement with his past. “Now I’m an alien in my own land,” we hear him say towards the film’s end. It is clear that Liverpool has changed, but so too has Davies. His vocation has allowed him to travel, to see the world, to be constantly moving forward, into the future. He has said, “I couldn’t go back to live there, I just couldn’t”,44 and as far as his filmmaking is concerned, this remains true.
“The Fire and the Rose Are One”
After a period marked by long gaps in his output, Davies returned with three films in relatively close succession. Each of these – The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song, and A Quiet Passion – is a symphony for women who challenge the gender roles and conventions of their day. Even when making films about himself and his family, Davies’ greatest empathy has always been with women. He has long spoken of his admiration for his mother’s strength in the face of adversity; he has even described her as “the great love” of his life. 45 His older sisters, too, whom he has said practically raised him,46 helped shape his worldview and nurtured his sympathies from a young age.
On the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth, Davies was approached by the playwright’s Charitable Trust to adapt one of his plays to the screen. Of the scripts that Davies was familiar with, he found the strongest connection with The Deep Blue Sea. The play is set in postwar London, and centres on Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a woman of around 40, who has ruptured the elegant surface of the era’s conformity, by abandoning her respectable, staid marriage to a judge for an intensely passionate affair with a former RAF pilot some years younger than her.
Despite his status as a celibate gay man,47 it is easy to see Davies’ affinity with this narrative, and in his hands it becomes a profound story of repression, loneliness, and yearning. While admitting to an initial fear of Rattigan’s material,48 The Deep Blue Sea, in structure and style, is very much a Terence Davies film. The films lacks naturalism and revels in a fantasy of intimacy, complete with gorgeous sing-alongs that strengthen the idea of community, and slow tracking shots that craft ecstatic, emotional swells. Davies finds beauty in the misery of grey postwar Britain – the film’s colour palette is smudged with muted browns and blues, shot through with flashes of warm, Vermeeresque light, and the vibrant life force represented by Hester’s red coat.
But most importantly Davies’ adaptation turns The Deep Blue Sea into a memory film. Unlike the play, Davies locates the storytelling in Hester’s point of view to create, what he has called, “the absolute instantaneous feeling of something that has happened.”49 Davies bookmarks the film by placing Hester at the window of her Ladbroke Grove flat – closing the curtains when she is prepared to die, opening them when she decides to live. These scenes are not in Rattigan’s play; they are entirely invented by Davies, who so often places his characters at windows at times of deep introspection and longing. As they do in The Neon Bible, windows also enable movement between past and present time here.
It is a visually elegant device, but also a smart one. Davies wants us to know how Hester is feeling. After an exterior shot reminiscent of the opening of Distant Voices, Still Lives, the camera enters Hester’s flat through the window, and we then enter her mind. We see her put money into the gas heater, take pills, and lie down. Fragments of memory flood her, interrupting the present. Davies takes us out of the dingy space – to Hester’s first meeting with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston) when she is with her husband, Lord William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), running into Freddie on the street, having a drink at the pub, the memory of their naked limbs sensually entwined. The camera swirls around them capturing love’s delirium. There is a sense of fantasy here, that Hester’s memories, heightened by her fragile emotional state, are unreliable, as she drifts in and out of consciousness. Samuel Barber’s gloriously melancholy “Violin Concerto, op. 14” surges for a full nine minutes in these opening sequences, magnifying this.
Similarly, in Sunset Song, the point of view is firmly located in Chris Guthrie’s (Agyness Deyn) often-traumatic experiences. Davies’ 30-year-struggle to bring Sunset Song to the screen has been well documented.50 He had first hoped to make Sunset Song immediately after The House of Mirth and had been enamored with Gibbon’s story since he saw a television adaptation in 1971. Approaching the UK Film Council in 1998, Davies was told the project “had no legs”.51 But he persevered, and a few years later funding came through, though not enough to shoot the film as he had originally intended.52 In no way, however, does Sunset Song feel like a compromised work of art.
Early in the film, Chris finds herself at a crossroads caught between the love of the land of her birth, the fictional Northern Scottish rural community of Kinraddie, and her desire to flee the farm, Blawearie, and live a life of her own making. Set in the years before World War I, and its bloody aftermath, Sunset Song, is a film about family, which covers terrain already well tread by Davies. In Chris, Davies sees some of his mother’s own resilience.53 In her father, John (Peter Mullan), Davies reckons with a man perhaps more brutal than any of his earlier tyrannical patriarchs. His violence, and the family’s overall dysfunction, looms large in the film’s early scenes. Davies has spoken of his discomfort with screen violence, yet he forces us to bear witness to John’s ritualistic beatings of his oldest son, Will (Jack Greenlees), steadying the camera square on the action. The sequence is shocking in its stillness; the camera doesn’t look away, and neither do we. Traces of the Catholicism Davies long left behind remain in the pietà-like pose that Chris adopts when she later comforts Will.
Despite these resonances in Davies’ own story and earlier films, Sunset Song carves a new path for the filmmaker. There is something of an epic quality in scope and execution, although Davies has bemoaned the compromises he had to make to certain scenes due to budgetary constraints and the challenges of shooting across three locations – Scotland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand.54 But the film’s very existence is a testament to Davies’ commitment to what is ultimately a feminist tale of endurance in the face of toxic masculinity. Davies understands the freedom Chris feels when her father dies and she becomes mistress of Blawearie and her own destiny; a freedom he captured in his memories of boyhood in The Long Day Closes.
Davies revels in this lightness, even if it is temporary. Chris falls in love and marries for love. Blissfully slow sequences of Chris’ romance with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) mark Sunset Song as “an unmistakable auteurist work”55 where Davies’ camera guides how we feel. Precise and elegant pans across rooms, as scenes dissolve into each other and day transitions into night, move time forward and in on itself. Chris is often positioned at windows, by now, a purely instinctive element of Davies’ portraiture, bathing her in an almost ethereal light, inspired by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.56 These digital interiors contrast with the external sequences of vast, rugged landscapes, captured on 65mm film. Davies’ outdoor compositions are rapturous, but more concerned with establishing Chris’ almost primeval connection to the land.
With A Quiet Passion Davies moved most of the action back indoors. Despite a recent public declaration that he is “done with autobiography”,57 Davies has also admitted that A Quiet Passion, his fervent and elegant biopic of the 19th-century American poet, Emily Dickinson, might be the most autobiographical of all his films. Davies feels an intimate connection to Dickinson’s poetry and to elements of her biography, including her homesickness as a girl, her spiritual quest, and her experience of family as both a blessing and a curse.
Dickinson spent most of her life in self-imposed isolation in the family’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. Davies, unable to film inside the home, had a replica built in Belgium. Many of the exterior shots were taken on the grounds. Dickinson’s solitude is a fortuitous fact for Davies, a filmmaker so attuned to the rhythms of domestic life and the intimacies of interior spaces. He is less interested in where Dickinson went than he is in how she felt. In A Quiet Passion these spatial limitations allow him to create tension by condensing the story to a few rooms. In turn, he distills maximum feeling from seemingly minor events (the loss of a baking contest) and more profound ones, such as the death of Dickinson’s mother (Joanna Bacon), which is harrowing in its unflinching intensity.
Davies builds on the contrast between the increasingly suffocating space of Dickinson’s bedroom, which once her illness worsened (she suffered from the kidney disease Bright’s) she rarely left, by engaging with the expansiveness of her inner life. A Quiet Passion captures, in its form and tone, the torrid nature of her yearning. In a sequence of pure, ecstatic imagining Dickinson visualises a man climbing the steps to her room at night and opening her door. This desire finds emotional continuity in her belief, earlier confessed, that the routine of her life is “Gods concession to a no-hoper” like her, a woman deprived of a certain kind of love.
Dickinson is the quintessential Davies protagonist – a spectator rather than a participant, in a conventional way, in life. “I would like some approval before I die,” Dickinson tells the married Reverend she is in love with and to whom she has opened her heart by sharing her poetry. Despite writing 1,800 poems, that recognition doesn’t come in her lifetime, and Davies does not minimise Dickinson’s psychic agonies. “Oh you are a wretched creature. Will you never achieve anything?” she cries into the mirror during one moment of particularly harsh self-reflection. Davies also perceives Dickinson as a woman shortchanged by the times in which she lived – hers is a narrative of thwarted success that might also be applied to his own career.
Davies understands what some might describe as his limitations. He is yet to make a film set later than 1955, and has joked, “If I did a car chase, it would be two cars going very slowly.”58 Future projects continue to look to other sources for inspiration. An adaptation of Richard McCann’s novel Mother of Sorrows (2005), a gay man’s elegy to his mother, which comes up to the 1980s, and a biopic of the World War I poet, Siegfried Sassoon, which goes back to the past, are in various stages of production at the time of writing this profile. While neither subject is ostensibly about Terence Davies, one already senses the creation of films of grim beauty; films that will extend Davies’ reckoning with his past and himself – the work of a lifetime.
Children (1976, short)
Madonna and Child (1980, short)
Death and Transfiguration (1983, short)
The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984, collects the shorts)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
The Long Day Closes (1992)
The Neon Bible (1995)
The House of Mirth (2000)
Of Time and the City (2008)
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Sunset Song (2015)
A Quiet Passion (2016)
Mother of Sorrows (TBA)
Anderson, Jason. “My Liverpool: Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City.” Cinema Scope 35 (Summer 2008), http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/interviews-features-my-liverpool-terence-davies’-of-time-and-the-city/
Danks, Adrian. ‘The Art of Memory: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, Senses of Cinema 16 (September 2001), http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/cteq/distant/
Eliot, T.S. Four Quartets, London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Everett, Wendy. Terence Davies, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Fuller, Graham. “Love Among the Ruins: The Deep Blue Sea,” Film Comment 48 (March/April 2012), https://www.filmcomment.com/article/love-among-the-ruins-the-deep-blue-sea/
Koresky, Michael. “The Long Day Closes: In His Own Good Time,” Criterion Collection, Posted on January 28, 2014, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3041-the-long-day-closes-in-his-own-good-time
Koresky, Michael. “Love and Forgiveness,” Reverse Shot, May 12 2016, http://reverseshot.org/archive/entry/2201/sunset_song
Koresky, Michael. Terence Davies, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.
Rattigan, Terence. The Deep Blue Sea, London: Nick Hern Books, 2012.
Romney, Jonathan. “Hearth and Home,” Film Comment 52 (May/June 2016), https://www.filmcomment.com/article/terence-davies-sunset-song-interview/
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “License to Feel (Distant Voices, Still Lives),” (October 4, 2016) http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2016/10/license-to-feel/
Sulcas, Roslyn. “Terence Davies, Unfiltered and Bitter,” The New York Times, 13 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/movies/terence-davies-interview-sunset-song.html
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth, London: Virago Press, 1990.
- All the section headings are lines drawn from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) ↩
- Penelope Houston, “Cannes 41.” Sight and Sound 57.3 (Summer 1988) p.174. ↩
- The Trilogy comprises of three short-to-medium length films: Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983). ↩
- Michael Koresky, Terence Davies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), p.19. ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jason Anderson, “My Liverpool: Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City,” Cinema Scope, 35 (Summer 2008), http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/interviews-features-my-liverpool-terence-davies’-of-time-and-the-city/ ↩
- Michael Sicinski, “We Sing, But Not Ourselves: Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea,” Cinema Scope Online http://cinema-scope.com/currency/we-sing-but-not-ourselves-terence-davies-the-deep-blue-sea/ ↩
- Anderson. ↩
- Michael Koresky, Terence Davies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), p.125. ↩
- Ibid., p.145. ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016) ↩
- Wendy Everett, Terence Davies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), p.217. ↩
- Koresky, p.131. ↩
- Donald Clarke, “Being Gay Has Ruined My Life,” Irish Times, 25 November 2011, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/being-gay-has-ruined-my-life-1.16328 ↩
- Koresky, p.9. ↩
- Simon Hattenstone, “Bigmouth strikes again,” The Guardian, 21 October 2006 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/oct/20/3 ↩
- Koresky, p.91. ↩
- Ibid., p.1. ↩
- Terence Davies, Narration, Of Time and the City (2008). ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016) ↩
- Koresky, p.131. ↩
- While most often referred to as short films, it is worth noting that Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration, are actually 44, 30, and 26 minutes respectively. ↩
- Everett, p.14. ↩
- Koresky, p.132. ↩
- Adrian Danks, “The Art of Memory: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Senses of Cinema 16 (September 2001), http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/cteq/distant/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “License to Feel (Distant Voices, Still Lives),” (October 4, 2016), http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/2016/10/license-to-feel/ ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, 16 May 2017). ↩
- Koresky, p.144. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Everett, p.203. ↩
- Everett, p.137. ↩
- Ibid., p.14. ↩
- Ibid., p.119. ↩
- Ibid., p.119. ↩
- Simon Hattenstone, “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” The Guardian, 21 October 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/oct/20/3 ↩
- Koresky, p.14. ↩
- Ibid., p.139. ↩
- Jason Anderson, “My Liverpool: Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City,” Cinema Scope 35 (Summer 2008), http://cinema-scope.com/cinema-scope-magazine/interviews-features-my-liverpool-terence-davies’-of-time-and-the-city/ ↩
- Michael Koresky, Terence Davies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), p.20. ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016). ↩
- Koresky, p. 144. ↩
- Ibid., p. 145. ↩
- Hattenstone. ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016). ↩
- Stuart Jeffries, “Terence Davies: Follow your hormones, The Guardian, 24 November 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/nov/23/terence-davies-deep-blue-sea ↩
- Graham Fuller, “Love Among the Ruins: The Deep Blue Sea,” Film Comment 48 (March/April 2012), https://www.filmcomment.com/article/love-among-the-ruins-the-deep-blue-sea/ ↩
- Michael Koresky, Terence Davies (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), p.135. ↩
- Jonathan Romney, “Hearth and Home,” Film Comment 52 (May/June 2016), https://www.filmcomment.com/article/terence-davies-sunset-song-interview/. ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, 24 July 2016). ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, 24 July 2016). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid.) ↩
- Michael Koresky, “Love and Forgiveness,” Reverse Shot, May 12 2016, http://reverseshot.org/archive/entry/2201/sunset_song ↩
- Joanna Di Mattia, Interview with Terence Davies (Melbourne, July 24 2016) ↩
- Andrew Pulver, “Terence Davies on religion, being gay and his life in film,” The Guardian, 20 November 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/nov/19/terence-davies-religion-being-gay-sunset-song-interview. ↩
- Jeffries. ↩