Sunset Song: Terence Davies

Terence Davies is one of the the five subjects of my new book, Gay Directors, Gay Films? (published by Columbia University Press last week).

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

His new movie, Sunset Song, was famously rejected by Cannes Fest, where he has been a regular presence, but it plays in the less selective Toronto Film Fest.

Below please find excerpts from an interview with Davies.

Davies is the first to admit that he “doesn’t understand the modern world.  I’m a shameless Luddite; I prefer a romantic world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.”

From his early short films to his much garlanded 1988 debut “Distant Voices, Still Lives” to 2011’s Rachel Weisz-starring Terence Rattigan adaptation “The Deep Blue Sea,” the writer-director’s work has been defined by wistful nostalgia, honoring both the romance and resilience of previous generations.

Sunset Song

Playing as a Special Presentation in Toronto, Davies’ seventh feature, Sunset Song maintains that reflective sensibility. Adapted from a celebrated 1932 novel by Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the film chronicles the struggle of a young woman (played byAgyness Dean) to maintain her family farm in northeast Scotland, in the context of personal tragedy and the blight of the First World War.

Davies encountered the novel via its BBC television adaptation in 1971, well before the his film career had begun. He admits that the dense volume “rewards perseverance,” but was immediately moved by its “very primal” tale.

Family at the Center

“It’s a story in which all suffering is forgiven and accepted,” he explains. “The ending is quite sublime.” As in other of his films, the enduring comforts and conflicts of family are crucial to its narrative. “Family is macrocosm of all that is wonderful and terrible in our lives, and it’s a journey we all go through,” he continues, citing Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis” as the ultimate template for exploring this dynamic on screen.

Women as Screen Heroines

Classic Hollywood cinema continues to be a reference point for Davies, particularly the love stories and melodramas referred to then “women’s pictures”: “I grew up in an era where women were the heroes on screen, and that had a great influence on me. But you can’t imitate those films; you can only reflect and refract them in your own.”

He cites something of a Joan Fontaine quality in Dean, the 32-year-old supermodel-turned-actress. “She has one of those extraordinary faces that can look 11 years old in one shot, and womanly in another,” he says, admitting that he had no idea who she was when she arrived to audition. “I don’t know pop culture at all; I thought she was just a new actress. But as soon as her audition began, I felt something in my stomach.”

Davies began developing the script for “Sunset Song” 15 years ago, but with the film now complete, the director’s deliberate work pace has quickened up.

He’s now in pre-production of A Quiet Passion, a biopic of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, starring Cynthia Nixon, which represents his first U.S.-set project since 1995’s “The Neon Bible,” which featured Gena Rwolands.

Mother of Sorrows

Also in the works is an adaptation of Richard McCann’s interwoven short story collection Mother of Sorrows, whose narrative spans several decades leading up to 1980–“That’s as up to date as I get,” he says.

Prolific at Older Age

It’s a run of activity that he attributes only to “sheer luck.” “People tell me I’m more prolific these days, but I’m getting help with that,” he says wryly. “Still, I’m almost 70. I’m not a kid anymore.”