Terence Davies was the great British movie artist of working class Catholic experience and gay identity, a passionate believer and practitioner of cinema. And was also a wonderfully stylish and self-assured presence in person, with a gorgeously resonant voice that might have belonged to a stage matinee idol.
At the 2008 Cannes film festival, I shared a toast of rose with a joyful Davies and Mark Cousins after the successful debut of Of Time and the City. This captivating documentary collage, created by Davies, beautifully captures his hometown of Liverpool with genuine affection and avoids typical cliches.
From that point on, he felt content in the knowledge that his years of being overlooked as a filmmaker were behind him and that he was once again recognized in the world of cinema.
He was a renowned director known for his personal and autobiographical films. His works include Of Time and the City, which is widely recognized, as well as his heartfelt portrayal of childhood in The Long Day Closes (1992), his emotionally charged and poignant masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1983), and his enigmatic trilogy Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) – all exceptional films that can be likened to the literary works of Beckett or BS Johnson.
The main concept is transformation. According to Davies, the process of recalling memories and watching films transformed the suffering and humiliation he faced due to abuse and discrimination in his personal life. He did not use sarcasm or artificial behavior, but instead connected his religious beliefs as a child to these difficult experiences: they were his own versions of the Stations of the Cross. Similar to Proust, he recognized the powerful connection between art and pain as catalysts for discovering truth and the stability of significance.
His movies – particularly his early and personal pieces – were not designed to be easily digested. His Distant Voices, Still Lives is an unforgettable piece, despite the misleading adjectives in the title. The voices are immediately present and the lives are vividly portrayed. The film’s austerity, beauty, and artistry are a revelation. It is just as gripping as a thriller, with Davies delivering a remarkable performance from the talented Pete Postlethwaite as the frightening father who dominates his working-class family through fear, while struggling with his own inner fears and capable of moments of humor and gentleness. Davies’s perspective is multifaceted, and in this film, his recurring theme of the desire to forgive and the heavy burden it brings is evident.
In 1992, The Long Day Closes was released, another enlightening exploration of childhood. It was a cinematic poem that captured early experiences. Like Fellini, Scorsese, Truffaut, and Spielberg, Davies portrays movie-watching as a religious ritual, but with joy instead of shame and despair. One particular shot of sunlight gently moving across a carpet is truly remarkable. These are the things that children notice, but adults often overlook.
As the 1990s progressed, Davies encountered challenges in getting his films produced. However, in 1995, his version of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible successfully brought his unique perspective to an American backdrop.
In 2000, he also gave an exceptional performance in his interpretation of Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, featuring Gillian Anderson. This adaptation of Wharton’s work can easily be compared to Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
Later in his career, Davies focused on adapting literary works. He may have realized that these adaptations were more likely to be well-received commercially, and he approached them with great intelligence and emotion. His adaptation of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in 2011 was a quintessentially Davies-esque portrayal of loneliness and romantic love, starring Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz. He also brought the same level of intensity and seriousness to his adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song in 2015. His final film, Benediction, was a poignant exploration of the life of war poet Siegfried Sassoon, and it also touched upon some of Davies’ earlier themes of homosexuality and the displacement of secular passions into forms of devotion.
Recently, he had been focused on creating a grand version of Stefan Zweig’s novel, The Post Office Girl. Hopefully, this project will still be finished after his passing.
I must also mention the incredibly unique opportunity of recording an audio commentary alongside him and Matthew Guinness (son of Alec) for the Ealing film Kind Hearts and Coronets. For him, revisiting this classic was a nearly euphoric experience, as if he was communing with every artist involved in the making of the film. He appeared to have an intimate knowledge of every line, scene, and musical cue, his expertise was captivating. He was an exceptional director.