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Past Imperfect: The Cinema of Terence Davies

While the English filmmaker Terence Davies has completed only a handful of films over the past quarter century, he has established himself as a modern master of mise-en-scene with a flawless ability to render an indelible sense of the past. As the late critic David Overbey has noted, "Terence Davies is one of that rare breed of filmmakers who can turn their own memories of pain and joy into art, illuminating our own lives, freeing us from fear, and opening our hearts to possibilities of happiness." Davies’s best-known works recast elements from his own imperfect past growing up in a working-class family in Liverpool. Yet through an impeccable visual style and an ingenious use of music, he transforms that world into a place of timeless beauty and charm. Since the mid-1990s, Davies has moved away from autobiography and turned instead to vivid screen adaptations of literary family dramas, including his brilliant new realization of Edith Wharton’s classic novel The House of Mirth.

For their assistance with this series, we are especially grateful to Richard Peña of the New York Film Festival, producer Robert Last, and Terence Davies.

September 26 (Tuesday) 9:30 pm
October 5 (Thursday) 7 pm

The Terence Davies Trilogy


Directed by Terence Davies
England 1976, 35mm, color, 46 min.


Madonna and Child

Directed by Terence Davies
England 1980, 35mm, color, 30 min.


Death and Transfiguration

Directed by Terence Davies
England 1983, 35mm, color, 25 min.


An apprentice work that took Davies nearly a decade to complete, the critically acclaimed Trilogy foreshadows many of the director’s ongoing concerns and contains flashes of his singular form of visual storytelling, subtle use of music, and wry wit. The film constructs a composite portrait of Robert Tucker, who like Davies was the product of an impoverished Liverpool Catholic family. Bullied at home and victimized at school, Tucker’s only respite comes from the death of his abusive father. Moving from childhood through middle age, Madonna and Child focuses on his homosexuality and the crippling effects of his fear of condemnation by the church. The concluding Death and Transfiguration shifts inevitably to Tucker’s waning days in a geriatric ward, where he imagines the night nurse’s flashlight as heaven-sent illumination.

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September 27 (Wednesday) 9:30 pm
October 5 (Thursday) 9 pm

Distant Voices, Still Lives

Directed by Terence Davies
England 1988, 35mm, color, 85 min.
With Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Freda Dowie

In his debut feature, which won the International Critics Award at Cannes, Davies again revisits the past, this time leavening the tragic with the heartening. Told in a series of tableaux that fluidly navigate the working-class world of a Liverpool family in the 1940s and 1950s, Distant Voices, Still Lives reveals the horrors of that family life as it also features its celebratory moments and the extraordinary resiliency and strength of its women. Pervading so much of this world as Davies envisions it is the emotional impact of music as it emanates from the radio, is performed in the parlor, and is belted out in sing-alongs at the neighborhood pub. While "it rains a lot in Terence Davies’s memory," as one critic has noted, in this autobiographical meditation Davies rediscovers among the ruins of his youth the beauty and feeling that would one day allow him to become an artist.

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September 28 (Thursday) 7 pm
Special Event—all seats $10
Director Terence Davies in Person

The House of Mirth

Directed by Terence Davies
England 2000, 35mm, color, 140 min.
With Gillian Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, Eric Stoltz

Davies’s long-awaited adaptation of one of author Edith Wharton’s most celebrated novels, The House of Mirth traces the rise and fall of the alluring socialite Lily Bart (Anderson) during the Gilded Age of American high society. An independent-minded young woman in an era that brooked no rebellion against its rules, Lily struggles with the need for a "good marriage" and against the passion she feels for a young but penniless suitor, Lawrence Selden (Stoltz). Although the story is set in the palatial "cottages" of turn-of-the-century upstate New York, the film was shot with stunning results in Scotland. Appropriately, its world premiere was held last month at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

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