Over the last several decades, Terence Davies (b. 1945) has cemented a reputation as one of the great filmmakers in the Anglophone world, with a career that by now encompasses a few distinct periods. In his thirties, he debuted with a trilogy of short films—made between 1976 and 1983—based on his life as a boy in Liverpool, his early adulthood as a shipping office clerk, and anticipating his aging and death. These films announced the themes to which he returned in his first feature films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), also based on his childhood and adolescence in postwar England.
These two earliest films remain Davies’ most celebrated works, and they have defined much of the form and content of his work since: episodic structures; narratives that often contain an abusive father and the resulting dysfunctional family dynamics that both heal and wound; a commitment to realism interrupted periodically by rhapsodic passages, typically wordless, that involve the camera moving slowly past or into a space or tableau often meant to invoke the mental state of the character or characters onscreen.
He has since returned to Liverpool with the documentary Of Time and the City (2008) and to postwar England with The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from Terence Rattigan’s play. But his other films of the past twenty years have been literary adaptations that have taken him further afield: to the Depression-era American South in The Neon Bible; to Gilded Age New York in the The House of Mirth; and to World War I-era Scotland in Sunset Song. All involve dysfunctional families, episodic swings between realism and rhapsody.
More and more in these films, Davies has turned to the concerns of melodrama—the domestic entrapment of women—but he does so with a bracing, unflinching, almost frightening realism. His female protagonists are loners at heart, willingly or unwillingly, and in his latest film of all, he turns to one of the most famous recluses of all time, Emily Dickinson, in the biopic A Quiet Passion. – David Pendleton
A Quiet Passion screens at the HFA on Monday March 27, with Terence Davies in person, as part of the “Houghton at 75” program.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Gillian Anderson, Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron
US 2000, 35mm, color, 140 min
Edith Wharton’s celebrated novel The House of Mirth traces the rise and fall of the alluring socialite Lily Bart during the Gilded Age of the turn of the 20th century. 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. The film’s power derives from Davies’ ability to compel us to identify with Lily, even as she is driven ever closer to her doom: not physical violence, but a closing-off of available aspirations, a kind of enveloping economic and social extinction whose suffocation is made palpable by actor Gillian Anderson, by Davies’ careful attention to her performance, and by the mise-en-scène that entomb both spectator and protagonist within symmetrical interiors in compositions that both soothe and smother.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Gena Rowlands, Diana Scarwid, Denis Leary
US 1996, 35mm, color, 92 min
Davies’ first film after his early autobiographical works is a coming-of-age story, alternately reverie and nightmare, about a boy in the Southern US who chafes at the confining strictures of convention yet learns painful lessons about the cost of resistance, as do his mother and aunt. The mixed reception given the film may result in part from its somewhat airless, studio-bound feel, but the sense of staginess results from Davies’ experimentation with what has been called his “memory-realism.” In other words, the film takes us on a tour of Depression-era America via classical Hollywood, Walker Evans and Edward Hopper. Realist narrative episodes give way to rhapsodic passages wherein the passage of time or the internal state of a character are expressed purely cinematically: through lighting, camera movement, dissolves and music. (One unforgettable passage involves a sheet on a clothesline, a flag-draped coffin and the overture to Gone With the Wind.) Ultimately, The Neon Bible may be best understood as a transitional work, combining elements from Davies’ first films—such as the episodic structure brought to crisis by a violent father, seen from the perspective of his young son—with the concerns of his later films, more attuned to female suffering.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Peter Mullan, Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie
UK/Luxembourg 2015, DCP, color, 135 min
A 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song is regarded as a milestone of Scottish culture. It tells of the joys and sorrows of a young woman, Chris, growing up on a farm in the countryside. Davies maintains the novel’s balance between a realistic account of Scottish farming life in the early 20th century with an ecstatic appreciation of the beauty of the landscape and of nature’s power. With an exquisite, but repetitive, use of symmetrically frontal staging of his shots, Davies expresses his ambivalence towards these impeccably lit interiors, whether of farmhouse or church, that look on impassively at joy and sorrow. But Chris has a way out. Unlike the grand houses that ultimately trap House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, Chris has the land. And here an unexpected pagan aspect of Davies’ work reveals itself. Print courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
$12 Special Event Tickets
Terence Davies in Person
Monday March 27 at 7pm
Directed by Terence Davies. With Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Belgium/US 2016, DCP, color, 126 min
Continuing his ongoing series of films about women confronting the constricted place allowed them in the 19th and early 20th centuries (after The House of Mirth and Sunset Song), Terence Davies presents his most unconventional protagonist yet in this biopic of Emily Dickinson, which spans her life from adolescence to death. Davies, always attuned to the rich inner lives of solitary figures, presents Dickinson without any veneer of charm or pity but rather as an artist of striking originality and indomitable strength. Print courtesy Music Box Films.
Also part of the Houghton at 75 program; visit the page for more information.