Arguably the greatest living British filmmaker, Terence Davies (b. 1945) is renown for the meticulous care that transforms each new release into a highly anticipated cultural event. A member of the distinctive generation of British Film Institute nurtured directors whose ranks notably included Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway, Davies first established himself with three celebrated shorts, known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984). Like his trilogy, the subsequent features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are also set in postwar England, a dreary land of scarcity and sexual repression which inspires the elemental dichotomy at the heart of Davies’ work, a contrast between the somber outside world of gray, brick and rain and the intimate interior world, whose promise of warmth and camaraderie is tempered by poverty and the threat of violence or isolation. In Davies films escape – from both worlds – is provided by the radio, by the cinema and above all by music.
This is terrain that the Liverpool-born and Catholic-raised Davies knows well, and shapes with a strong autobiographical intimacy of his films. Davies’ work is distinguished by the wonderfully cinematographic qualities of his stories which are told most powerfully not through dialogue but rather through framing, camera movement, lighting and editing. Davies’ style has been called “memory realism”: everyday life is rendered in naturalistic detail colored by or overlaid with fantasy or reminiscence.
Davies’ postwar England is, indeed, defined by a kind of heightened reality that swings, with pendulum inevitability, from the best of times to the worst of times. That sense of life-and-death drama also animates Davies’ adaptations of American novels: The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000), two films that foreground women struggling against patriarchal society to live on their own terms. Davies’ latest film, The Deep Blue Sea, continues in this latter vein, although relocating to the time and place of his semi-autobiographical work.
Seen as a group, Davies’ films set in postwar England reveal him as an artist deeply grounded in a milieu as specific as Faulkner’s Mississippi or John Waters’ Baltimore. Davies has spoken of “the British genius at creating the dismal,” but his films show something else: the ability to make glowing poetry from the dismal.
Special thanks: Ed Arentz, Music Box Films; Jake Perlin, the Film Desk; Florence Almozini, BAMcinématek; John Taylor; Andrew Youdell, BFI.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston,
Simon Russell Beale
UK 2011, 35mm, color, 98 min
Terence Rattigan was the dominant British playwright in the years between the end of the war and the rise of the “angry young men” in the late 1950s, his work a British parallel to such postwar US playwrights as Tennessee Williams and William Inge: tales of characters torn between desire and the constraints of convention. This is fertile territory for Davies, as proved by his adaptation of Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea. The protagonist is a woman who suffers after leaving her wealthy husband for a troubled ex-RAF pilot. The film features remarkable performances, particularly by Rachel Weisz in the lead. But it is also a tour de force for Davies, who brings the material to life with moody, evocative cinematography and a handful of impassioned wordless passages set to popular music from the period.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Leigh McCormack, Marjorie Yates, Anthony Watsonik
UK 1992, 35mm, color, 85 min
Davies’ second feature film could also be seen as his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Long Day Closes plays out as a series of scenes from the everyday life of 11-year-old Bud whose approaching adolescence in 1950s England also means the coming of a reckoning with his sexuality. In the meantime, he escapes from poverty and schoolyard bullying into the warmth of his family and the fantasy world of the movies and popular music. Elegant dissolves from shot to shot pile up the associations between otherwise isolated events as the camera drifts ceaselessly. The mise en scene doesn’t distinguish between memory and reverie, reflecting the dreamy nature of the young boy at the film’s heart.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Wash, Freda Dowie
UK 1988, 35mm, color, 85 min
Distant Voices, Still Lives unfolds as a series of tableaux based on moments from Davies’ family life growing up, creating a searingly intimate portrait of working-class Liverpool in the late 1940s and 1950s. Focusing on the real-life experiences of his mother, sisters and brother, Davies presents a household torn apart by a violent father and reunited in their fear and hatred of him. It was this film that announced the importance of music in Davies’ work – whether encountered over the radio, in pub sing-alongs or blasting directly from the film’s soundtrack – and above all confirmed his ability to tell stories visually.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Robin Hooper, Nick Stringer,
UK 1984, 35mm, b/w, 94 min
Davies’ first films were a series of three narrative shorts that collectively construct a portrait of fictional alter ego Robert Tucker, who like Davies is the product of an impoverished Liverpool Catholic family. The semi-autobiographical first two films, Children and Madonna and Child, introduce the concerns that will also inform Davies’ first two features: a childhood shadowed by bullying and an abusive father, the father’s death, and the struggle to accept and assume one’s homosexuality. The remarkable third short, Death and Transfiguration imagines Tucker’s waning days in a geriatric ward, where the night nurse’s flashlight becomes heaven-sent illumination.