In the previous month, the British film industry suffered a loss with the passing of one of its most talented and unique filmmakers. Terence Davies, known for his trilogy of early short films (Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration – all available on BFI Player), as well as his most recent feature Benediction (2021), seamlessly combined personal memories with broader universal truths. His range of subjects included autobiographical depictions of working-class life in postwar Liverpool (Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 and The Long Day Closes in 1992), adaptations of literary works (such as The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole set in Georgia, currently streaming on Channel 4, and Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a Scottish masterpiece from 2015), and intimate portrayals of real-life writers. Notably, his film A Quiet Passion from 2016 featured Cynthia Nixon’s brilliant performance as the American poet Emily Dickinson. Despite the variety of his projects, each one carried a deeply personal touch. It is no surprise that Jack Lowden, who portrayed Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction, shared that after delving into the diaries of his character, he gradually realized that “I was essentially playing Terence.”
Despite receiving high praise from critics, including being ranked as the third best British film of all time by Time Out magazine, Davies faced financial struggles in getting his films produced, a common issue among his fellow filmmakers. Following the release of his skillful adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 2000, which featured an impressive performance by Gillian Anderson, there was an eight-year gap before his next film, the exceptional documentary Of Time and the City, and three more years before his next feature film, a well-received version of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea in 2011. Despite being highly regarded by cinephiles, Davies had to persistently fight for each film to be made.
Some of my most cherished memories of Davies involve our meetings, where I had the privilege of interviewing him. One memorable experience was when we traveled to Liverpool together right before Of Time and the City was released in the UK. This film, which combines personal memories with archival footage and a poignant soundtrack featuring quotes from literary greats such as Joyce, Shelley, Chekhov, and Engels, was my favorite of the year. It served as both a love letter and a tribute to Davies’ hometown. During our time together, Davies, who was described by his producer Roy Boulter as exploring themes of “innocence lost and aging” in Of Time and the City, kindly agreed to take me on a journey through his formative years – a dream come true for any film enthusiast!
On Kensington Street where he grew up, he observed that the houses and pavements of his childhood “live inside me with the most incredible intensity”, adding that “I’ll always be trying to get back to the four years that I was happy, from seven till 11.” He pointed me to a garage where, at a formative age, he saw three men, stripped to the waist, building a wall, “and I knew there and then that I was gay – although I didn’t know what it was called. And my paradise and happiness ended.”
Having been brought up as a devoted Catholic, Davies faced difficulties in finding harmony between his beliefs and his sexual orientation. He remembers spending years crying and praying until his knees were bruised, but to no avail. We strolled from his old house to the very church where he used to worship. “Now, it disgusts me,” he confided. “All this meaningless symbolism. It caused me a lot of harm.”
From the church, we walked onward to a now deserted movie house where he talked excitedly of growing up within walking distance of no less than eight cinemas. For Davies, cinema became the new place of worship. “And my love was as muscular as my Catholicism,” he opines in Of Time and the City, “but without any of the drawbacks. Musicals, melodramas, westerns – nothing was too rich or too poor for my rapacious appetite. And I gorged myself with a frequency that would shame a sinner!”
The intense adoration and enthusiasm for film, evident in all of Davies’s creations, permeates his entire body of work. A defining scene from The Long Day Closes (inspiring pivotal moments in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light) depicts a young boy in the balcony of his neighborhood movie theater, captivated and mesmerized by the wonders unfolding on screen.
In later years, while enjoying a port and lemon at Da Wheel bar in Shetland, where he was a special guest at the Screenplay film festival, Davies recalled a conversation we had in Liverpool. He shared that for him, the experience of cinema was akin to a religious experience, as he truly believed in what he saw on the screen.
I can think of no better description of the transportative magic of the movies, or the invigorating wonder of Terence Davies.
Unless stated otherwise, all titles can be rented on various platforms.
I am also finding enjoyment in other things.
A Personal Account: Every Person for Themselves, with God as the Opponent
From his bold description of the entire 20th century having been “a mistake” to his declaration that he can only learn from bad films (the great ones remain “an enigma”), Werner Herzog’s latest tome is deliciously forthright fare. Tales of strong women, crazed actors and random on-camera shootings (“a bit of local folklore”) sit alongside grand philosophical provocations (“the culture of complaint disgusts me”) and apocalyptic predictions (“I picture a radical turning away from thought, argument and image”) to page-turning effect.
Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger
The BFI is honoring the lasting impact of the talented duo through restored films, re-releases, and exhibitions. This serves as a stunning reminder of their incredible skills showcased in works such as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, and others. The celebration runs until December 31st.