Terence Davies is charmingly old-fashioned and unconcerned with cinema trends. His films are highly individual, gorgeous chronicles of time and memory. Whether he’s excavating his own history, or breathing life into the stories of others, each of Davies’ films is a profoundly personal, rhapsodic creation, alive with feeling. Davies has a singular aesthetic, an appreciation for the potency of stillness and silence on screen, and an eye for executing breathtaking shots.
Unsurprisingly, Davies hasn’t made a film set much later than 1955. “The past for me is not a foreign country; it’s ever present,” he admits, via phone from Auckland, where his latest elegy for time past, Sunset Song, is screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival, ahead of its premiere (and his appearance) at the Melbourne International Film Festival. “I don’t understand the modern world,” he tells me, “and I’m also rather repelled by it.”
Born in 1945, Davies has been looking back since he started making films. After ten soul-crushing years working as a shipping clerk, Davies studied at Coventry Drama School and the National Film School. His first films, a trilogy of shorts – Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) – followed his alter ego, Robert Tucker, through his youth, working life, and imagined death.
With his first feature film, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Davies continued to dramatise 1950s Liverpool, the time and city in which he grew up as the youngest of ten children, in a working-class, Catholic family. An expressive, non-linear narrative, it details his family’s experience with a violent father and the aftermath of his death. But Davies himself wasn’t present as a character, although the film is shaped from his memories. The Long Day Closes (1992) goes further, reintroducing a Davies double into the picture – Bud, an eleven-year-old struggling with Catholicism and the realisation that he is gay (Davies now calls himself a “born again atheist”).
These early films established a quietly explosive emotional terrain – families, the hypocrisies of religion and other social institutions, the rhythms of everyday life, violent men, resistant women, and the importance of music in the creation of community. These themes flow through his later adaptations of literary works too, including his films of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000) and Terence Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea (2011, and available to watch at SBS on Demand - see below).
“Family is the source of everything that is wonderful and terrible in our lives,” Davies asserts, and it’s a subject he returns to even when the story isn’t specifically about his own. Despite a recent declaration in The Guardian that “I am done with autobiography,” a straight line can be drawn from Sunset Song back to his earlier films. The opening titles might announce ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song’ but this is very much a Terence Davies film.
Sunset Song is the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who lives with her family on a farm in rural Scotland in the years prior to the start of the First World War. She’s around 14 when the story begins in 1911. Chris has a violent father (Peter Mullan), defeated mother, and an older brother, Will (Jack Greenlees,) whom she loves dearly but who’s intent on escape. All the beauty and brutality of their world is captured with lush, lyrical detail by cinematographer, Michael McDonough (exteriors were shot in Scotland and New Zealand, interiors Luxembourg). Love offers Chris hope, in the form of Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). But the sun sets on their golden days with the long, dark cloud of the First World War.
For Davies, bringing Gibbons’ beloved novel to the screen has been a labour of love. First drawn to the story after watching BBC Scotland’s serialised adaptation in 1971, Davies says, “I wanted to make it for a long time, 18 years ago.” He had hoped to commence production after The House of Mirth. “But at that time there was a very big change in the way that certain films were funded in England, the BFI production board had been closed down and the U.K. Film Council was set up – its remit was to make films that made money in America.” Passionately, Davies declares that it “was just scandalous” – it left him depressed and in limbo while the Council decided the project had no legs.
Sunset Song is evidence of Davies’ refusal to compromise his vision, a common theme throughout a 40-year career in which he has made only nine films. “We got some money, not nearly enough to shoot it as it was written. And so the great strain was, at the end of each shooting day, saying ‘do we need these scenes in tomorrow or can we crop them?’ That was a very great strain. The only time in my life I’ve ever done so and I shall never do it again.” But he’s able to laugh about it. “We had wonderful commitment from the actors and the crew and that got us through, but it was nip and tuck.”
Why did Davies persevere? First and foremost, he loved Chris’s story. It’s an empathy he has for all his characters, especially the women, whose stories have always been part of his cinematic life. “When I was growing up in the 50s, the big commercial successes from Hollywood were all about women – All That Heaven Allows, Love is a Many Splendored Thing. At their centre were women, heroines.” It was the same at home. “I was brought up by my sisters. That’s where that sympathy comes from, really.”
Like many Davies’ women, Chris finds herself trapped in a world not of her making. But she doesn’t withdraw; she resolves to face it. Davies admires her strength and growth. “What moved me more than anything else about the story is the fact that here, at the beginning, she’s about 14, at the end she’s only 21 and she’s gone on this extraordinary journey, gone through so much.”
With Sunset Song, Davies resists broad, epic sweeps – the film is often intimate and restrained. It concludes with a moving act of forgiveness. As Davies explains, Chris has “forgiven all suffering, and in a way she becomes a symbol of Scotland.” It frees her from the past. Davies is philosophical. “When you don’t forgive you are forever entrapped by the past.” In this way, each of his films feels like his own personal reckoning with the ghosts from his own.
Watch 'Sunset Song'
Saturday 24 October, 10:50pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Peter Mullan, Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Hugh Ross, Douglas Rankine