Davies, Terence: Britain’s Greatest Living Director

Retrospective of Terence Davies’ Films


terence_davies_2A true renaissance man, Terence Davies is an artist, filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, actor, and narrator. Davies’ critical status is based on the poetic autobiographical features he has made in the first decade of his career. Though best known as a film director, he has produced several radio plays, including one based on Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves.”  In 1983, Davies dramatized the life of his alter-ego in the novel “Hallelujah Now,” a brutally candid account. “Intensive Care,” the autobiographical radio feature that Davies wrote and narrated for BBC Radio 3, was broadcast on April 17, 2010.

Despite a small output of half a dozen features in four decades, Davies is arguably Britain’s greatest living filmmaker. Some critics may choose Ken Loach as the country’s premier filmmaker, but Loach is older (born 1934) than Davies and belongs to a different artistic cohort. Davis shares some similarities with his contemporary, the accomplished director Mike Leigh, who’s only two years older. But as I will show later, Davies is a more significant filmmaker, using more fully the language of film as a unique medium. For starters, you can see most of Leigh’s features as stage plays, because they are highly dependent on the characters and the actors who co-created them with Leigh.

terence_davies_3Thematically, like Pedro Almodovar and Todd Haynes, Davies has explored in his work the lives of women.  Unlike Almodovar, however, whose female protagonists are diverse and, ultimately, they are not victims, Davies has largely depicted middle-class or working-class women who are victims of their social circumstances.  Davies’ women are products of the rigid patriarchal British society of the 1950s, a context in which Davies grew up, witnessing first-hand sexual segregation and abuse as they had prevailed in his own family.

Aware of his consistent preoccupation with certain motifs and characters, Davies said: “My films are always about outsiders. I’ve always felt like an outsider myself. I’ve never felt part of life. I’ve always felt like a spectator. I think that’s what interests me about all the people and the things that I’ve written about. Lily Bart in ‘The House of Mirth‘ is an outsider, and so is Hester Collyer in ‘The Deep Blue Sea.’”[i] One can easily add to that list the lead female character (played by Gena Rowlands) in “The Neon Bible.”

As a filmmaker, Davies is noted for the recurring themes of the complex relationship between time and memory, women’s emotional and physical suffering and endurance, the influence of subjective memory on everyday life, past, present, and future, and the crippling effects of paternal abuse and rigid religiosity on individuals’ welfare and happiness.

terence_davies_1Davies’ output is artistically distinguished, consisting of critically acclaimed shorts and features that are highly autobiographical, philosophical in concerns, coherent in scheme, and stylized in visual and aural design. Davies’ films represent acts of exorcism of a tormented past, but they also function as acts of redemption and renewal. “I make films to come to terms with my family history,” the director has said. “If there had been no suffering, there would have been no films.”[ii] But unlike other artists, Davies does not think that personal pain is a necessary condition for creating good art—or any art.

One of the distinctions of great artists is their ability to turn drab human existence, pain, and misery into joyous, lyrical, and sublime art. Davies exults in the potential power of cinema as a medium for personal transformation and redemption. He has displayed profound understanding of how art can liberate people from their sorrow. Time in his films may be transitory and ephemeral, yet Davies knows that his ability to capture particular historical moments in a uniquely filmic mode represents the kind of self-fulfillment associated with spiritual or even religious experience.

More than the other directors in this book, who have occasionally collaborated with other scribes in writing their scripts, Davies has always been the sole screenwriter of his films, which gives him a greater measure of authority and control. As a director, he has frequently explored gay themes in his films via characters that are his alter-egos. Davies is more concerned with reflecting on and recreating his own life than making films with gay characters or gay issues per se. And three of his non-personal features deal with the lives of women.

Davies has the special gift for constructing luminous visual images and resonant sounds whose power is both aesthetic and emotional. Stylistically, Davies’ works are defined by multi-nuanced texts, elaborate mise-en-scene, symmetrical compositions, and “symphonic” narrative structures, to borrow a term from classic music, which he admires. Davies leaves nothing to random chance: To achieve maximal dramatic and emotional impact, his bric-a-bric strategy calls for each shot to be measured and placed in the “right” position. Similarly, each sound of his rich scores is carefully wedded to a particular image, resulting in emotional reverberation. Holding that film is the most emotional and expressive art form, Davies uses songs in his narratives to express the innermost feelings—repressed and frustrated sensations—of his characters.

Of the five directors in this book, Davis is the most rigorous, methodical, and subjective. Asked what he wanted to achieve in his life, Davies said: “Even though I’m a very pessimistic person, I believe that it’s worth striving to be a better person. Better, not better off.  That’s just vanity. I want to say that it is worth going on.” According to his philosophy of life, “You are worthy because you were born, and being of service is what makes you great as a human being.” Davies’s films suggest that “working-class life was difficult, but it had great beauty and depth and warmth.”

There’s nothing intellectual about Davies’ approach to the construction of narrative or character. In sharp contrast to Haynes, there’s no conscious deconstruction, no overall analytical perspective informed by postmodernism.  As he explained: “My point of view comes from instinct and heart. I try to be as truthful to memory as possible. I remember the intensity of those moments, which I still reverberate to even today. So I have no aesthetic distance from the material of my films.”[v] Moreover, Davies’screen characters are not meant to be symbolic representations of stereotypes or prototypes.  The mother in several of his films is not the self-sacrificing type, and Hester Collyer in “The Deep Blue Sea” does not stand for the Hollywood type of the sexually starved, long-suffering wife.

It goes without saying that, commercially, Davies is the least accessible director in the book. His career is entirely dependent on critical response and festival showings. Most of his features have world-premiered at the Cannes and Locarno Film Festivals and then shown at the Toronto Film Festival, where he is particularly appreciated. None of his features has crossed over beyond the art-houses in big metropolitan centers or festival circuits, and Davies is still better known in Europe than in the U.S.