Bright Lights Film Journal

Memories and Confessions: On the Filmography of Terence Davies

Sunset Song (2015)

Davies – who can be described as a cultural conservative but never a simple nostalgist – wears his affection for his forgotten eras on his sleeve, generally eschewing close-ups in favour of wide, deep-focus compositions that place his characters within a meticulously recreated visual environment and draws the viewer’s attention to the minor details of the mise-en-scene.

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Shot one: a slow pan, left to right, of a doctor’s waiting room, scanning the sullen faces of patients who looks toward the lens, framed frontally and in medium close-up, seated against a featureless white wall, a single key light throwing their shadows large behind them. The shot is silent, aside from the sounds of magazine pages turning and light coughing. The pan finally comes to rest on Robert Tucker, a balding, affectless young man sitting in the corner of the room, pushed just to the right of centre. Shot two: a static wide shot, a row of identical beach huts stretching into the background, a metal grate filling the top part of the screen. Robert, now seen as a young boy, enters the frame from one of the huts, a small figure dwarfed by his surroundings. The camera swivels on its axis to follow him as he walks to frame left, revealing rows more of the huts and a small showering area, which Robert enters. The soundscape suddenly becomes filled with the sounds of the pool: children laughing, running water. Shot three: we return to Robert in the present day, now in tight close-up, looking intently forward, the sounds of the pool spilling over; it’s uncertain whether he’s reflecting on this memory or whether his attention has been caught by something out of frame. Shot four: a medium shot of the shower area, as young Robert’s gaze becomes fixed upon an older male swimmer, eroticized by Davies’ camera, who enters and begins to wash his chest thoroughly.

Children (1976)

Although his first film is rough in its execution, Terence Davies had already sketched most of the now familiar elements of his cinematic style in the opening shots of the 40-minute, BFI-funded Children (1976): the blending of social realism with impressionism; drab, working-class locations lent a sense of grandeur through the use of techniques rooted in cinematic classicism; a hazy sense of linear time and space; a disjunct between sound and image; expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting; mundane locations rendered expressionistic through framing and cutting; lengthy static wide shots; dead air and the foregrounding of minor ambient sounds; the experience of social exclusion made vivid through form. Children was shot on a shoestring budget, with nonprofessional actors and real locations. Despite bearing many of the trappings of social realist drama, however, Davies’ film rejects immediacy and exudes evocations of classicism. “A lot of the time, people are lit directly by windows, which is an influence of Vermeer,” explains Davies on the DVD commentary. He followed up what became known as the Terence Davies Trilogy (which included Madonna and Child, 1980, and Death and Transfiguration, 1983) with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), a series of impressionistic films drawing on his experiences growing up in the lower rungs of Liverpudlian society during the late 1940s and early ‘50s.

This phase in Davies’ career reveals a filmmaker consistently seeking to expand and refine his style. In Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies expands the singular focus of the trilogy into a collective protagonist of a family unit, which shifts and alters with the ebb and flow of time. Davies has abandoned the close-ups and static shots of his earlier work in favour of a more unique singular vision, capturing his characters in wide, painterly tableaux; a claustrophobic cityscape bathed in soot, lamplight, and steam. The figures that populate this world – pale, melancholy, monotone – strike iconographic poses and utter sparse dialogue with the studied minimalism of the characters in Straub/Huillet’s films. Though these figures tend to be posed fixed in the frame, or else move slowly across carefully telegraphed and predetermined lines of motion, the camera tracks around them with the graceful ease of Raoul Ruiz’s. The traces of linear plot progression that drive the trilogy disintegrate entirely, in favour of a free-associative succession of moments, rich in texture or psychodramatic affect.

Although the autobiographical element of Davies’ cinema is pronounced, verisimilitude is not a primary concern of his. Memories are condensed, reimagined, fractured, and they are interspersed with dreams, fantasies, and allusions to other artworks, both cinematic and otherwise (Davies’ claimed largest inspiration on his early work is the poetry T.S. Eliot), as well as events borrowed from the lives of friends and family members. Indeed, Distant Voices, Still Lives tells a story deeply inspired by Davies’ childhood in which the Davies figure is himself removed, instead focusing solely on the tribulations of his older siblings. Davies, in the DVD commentary, explained that this was his way of making up for their omission from The Trilogy, which imagined his childhood from the perspective of a single child. Certain moments, associated with Davies’ own biography, are repeatedly evoked across his films, but in various configurations. A young person watching silently, helplessly as their family members are abused by a stern patriarch (The Trilogy, Distant Voices, Still Lives, Sunset Song), suicide attempts (Sunset Song, The Deep Blue Sea), the lingering effects the painful efforts of former soldiers to re-adapt to civilian life (explicitly thematised in The Deep Blue Sea and Distant Voices, but repeatedly referenced in many others), the rigours of a Catholic institutional education (The Trilogy, The Long Day Closes, Sunset Song), the inaugural infidelity of the female partner (The Trilogy, The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth), self-imposed chastity (The Trilogy, A Quiet Passion); the contradictory feelings of grief and relief that result from the death of an overbearing, abusive member of a family (Sunset Song, Distant Voices, The Trilogy). All of these leave the viewer a sensation of either intense trauma or ecstasy, as if it was the intensity of feeling left by them in Davies’ mind that made their externalization in the form of fiction a necessity.

Davies has publicly rejected the categorization of his work by many critics into the genre of British social realist cinema. In a recent interview, he described the work of the “kitchen sink” realists as being “the product of someone from the middle class slumming it. There’s never been any film which has really done it […] So it’s seeing little bits of little films that you think, “Yes, that little scene captured just something, an echo of what it was like.” But I can’t think of any film that really captured what it felt like to be working class because working-class people didn’t make movies.” I’ll leave Davies’ criticisms of the subgenre as a whole an unopened can of words for the moment, but his rejection of linear plotting and straightforward characterization as a means to capture the nuances of a particular social milieu is revealing of his process. As in the late films of Ruiz (or, indeed, the other great cinematic Terrence – Malick), Davies’ cinema is devoted to revealing the nuances of human memory and the abstract ebb and flow of reminisces – with memories being trigged by sounds, locations, patterns, colours, actions, or pieces of speech. Instead of building a linear structure based on traditional scenes and rising action, Davies compiles collages consisting of self-contained sketches – sometimes compressed, sometimes drawn out. The relationship of these moments to one another usually isn’t immediately clear, but they form a loose shape in retrospect.

In a late sequence of The Long Day Closes, Bud’s older brother and his girlfriend are speaking, framed by a wooden door. Their dialogue is inaudible. The door, with its obscuring glass windows, is slowly closed by an unseen force, coming to abstract them into silhouettes. Music overtakes the soundscape. The pale green walls are lit solely with flickering lamplight. The two kiss. It’s at this point that Davies cut to a reaction shot, Bud, standing at the bottom of the steps, his back to the camera yet turning over his shoulder, his visage half-obscured by shadow. It’s one of the few uses of reverse shot in Davies, yet, unusually, he connects the shots through 180-degree cutting, and places the subjects of both shots at the centre. This central idea of an alienated adolescent, attempting to reconcile his forbidden sexual urges with the values of an oppressive social system and a strict Catholic background, will occur repeatedly in Davies’ cinema, which favours characters who experience particular cultures from the sidelines. This is why the image of a character gazing through a windowpane is such a common theme in Davies; the window is a frame that can both protect the individual and isolate him, at the edge of experience, again, like in Vermeer.

The Long Day Closes (1992)

In Davies’ world, sing-alongs become a public glue, unifying characters amongst differing social classes, political spectrums, and personal temperaments, however briefly. Like the characters in Joyce’s Dubliners, Davies’ figures are united by their shared fascination with the consummation and performance of popular songs. The centrality of song is most explicit in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which has been described as a “social realist musical,” a bipolar movie that swings back and forth between the ecstasy of song and searing emotional pain. Significant social rituals are marked and sanctified by a community (sometimes micro, sometimes macro) coming together in song: Agnes’ Fordian wedding ceremony in Sunset Song; a crowd of terrified Londoners hiding in a subway platform from a blitz attack in The Deep Blue Sea, erupting into an impromptu performance of “Molly Malone”; an idyllic family Christmas over-layered with hymns in The Long Day Closes). Society, in Davies’ view, is a double-edged sword; although its codes and conventions imprison his protagonists, instilling in them a sense of guilt and doubt that ensures their exclusion, it also provides a valuable sense of structure and belonging that creates the few moments of pleasure for his characters – public holidays such as birthdays, weddings, and Christmas celebrations are the locus points of familial warmth. These scenes tend to be shot frontally, with a sense of formal theatricality, emphasizing their status as predetermined social rituals. This paradoxical sense of closeness, which also reminds the protagonist of their own deeper alienation, is summed up in the sequence of The Deep Blue Sea that sees a bustling group sing-along to Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me” in a local pub, which pans right to left before coming to fix on Hester, who is sitting silently with a half-smile. The shot ends on a somewhat sour note, as Freddie pushes her to join in. Davies then cross-fades to a frontal wide shot of the two slow-dancing in profile, with Stafford’s recording now taking over the soundscape as the camera tracks in to frame them in a medium. Davies’ planimetric framing and expressionistic lighting lends a sense of rigidity to private spaces, often giving living rooms and local pubs the appearance of theatre stages.

The Deep Blue Sea (2012)

Sunset Song (2015)

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Davies’ figures often appear deliberately arranged, a compositional factor made explicit in the opening scenes of Distant Voices, which introduces its central characters as they look directly toward the camera, posed for a family photograph – though the viewer isn’t aware of this fact until the flash goes off. Violence is staged with a similar sense of distance, as in a sequence of Sunset Song in which Peter Mullen’s patriarch John whip his son Will in a barn several times for blaspheming. Davies holds on a static medium-wide shot, placing the son just off centre of the foreground while his father stands in the background. Although the pain is deeply felt, both characters remain stone-faced; Will maintaining a straight expression in an effort to hide his anger and John appearing impassive as if simply carrying out a parental duty. The camera’s placidity when faced with suffering takes on a kind of relentless stoicism, refusing to cut from or even register the shock and trauma. Even after the lashings have ended and John leaves the frame, Davies’ camera lingers, watching as the cracks start to take hold of Will’s façade. Although they often look at us directly, Davies’ characters remain opaque – it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what a character is thinking at any moment, as in the films of Pedro Costa. Yet, because of their unknowability, Davies aestheticizes his characters’ emotions through light, texture, and colour.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Sunset Song

Betraying his fascination with Ophüls, Welles, and late Ford, Davies tends to structure his compositions around wide-angle lenses, distant camera positions, large swaths of negative space, and weighty, methodical camera movements. Tracking shots and pans are a trademark of Davies’ style, but he rarely moves his camera in tandem with his subjects; he either moves toward an empty space (e.g., the opening shot of Distant Voices, which involves the camera creeping forward across an empty hallway in a suburban home and then, upon reaching the far wall, rotating around and tracking back toward the front door), or moves in direct opposition to his characters’ movements across the space. Davies – who can be described as a cultural conservative but never a simple nostalgist – wears his affection for his forgotten eras on his sleeve, generally eschewing close-ups in favour of wide, deep-focus compositions that place his characters within a meticulously recreated visual environment and draws the viewer’s attention to the minor details of the mise-en-scene. Davies frames mostly in cramped, shadowy interiors, with staircases, windowpanes, and doorframes being prominent recurring visual elements. It’s hard to think of a contemporary filmmaker, aside from Pedro Costa, who is so interested in the shapes different shades of light throw across a partly lit room – recall the radical sequence in The Long Day Closes in which Davies stops the action dead in its tracks to focus the camera, in a single, static shot, on the shifting light patterns on Bud’s bedroom rug as the sun rises. As with the aforementioned filmmakers, this creates an aesthetic that feels untethered from the subjectivity of any particular character, but is instead guided by the invisible hand of an omniscient author.

The bare facts of Davies’ biography and the key figures in his life – his strong sense of Catholic guilt, his nostalgia; his abusive paterfamilias, and his death early in Davies’ childhood; his angelic mother; his supportive network of siblings – fill his films, to varying extents and in diverse ways, even within this period, which sees real-world figures and the protagonists of existing dramatic works become locus points of Davies’ pet themes. Following his autobiographical trilogy, Davies would go on to his adaptation phase (with the notable exception of his sole documentary, Of Time and the City). His idiosyncratic takes on John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song neglect fidelity to their source material in favour of using these texts as vehicles to explore his pet themes. The classicism of Davies’ work during this period evokes Ford, De Oliveira, Von Sternberg, Renoir, Dreyer, Murnau, Borzage, and countless Baroque paintings. Yet Davies doesn’t foreground his cinephilia – he crafts images that, though highly aestheticized, are charged with emotionality and the immediacy of the present moment. Previously adapted by Anatole Litvak, Davies’ reworking of Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea compresses the play’s first act into an elliptical, nearly silent montage, detailing Hester’s failing marriage to her husband, Sir William, a wealthy judge several decades her senior, and the development of her affair with Freddie, an erratic RAF pilot clearly suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress following his involvement in the First World War. Davies begins the narrative, like Rattigan, with a sequence depicting Hester’s failed suicide attempt, but where Rattigan is concerned with the dynamics of plot, structuring the action over the mystery of what led Hester to pursue such a desperate action. Davies flattens the action, jumbling the chronology and reducing the dramatic tension.

Most of Davies’ films are about identity formation, either taking as their subject an adolescent desperate to determine what place they will hold in the world (The Trilogy, The Long Day Closes, Distant Voices, Still Lives) or adults who abruptly reject their established lives and must painfully navigate the fallout that follows (The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea, A Quiet Passion, The Neon Bible). In The Deep Blue Sea, Hester falls for Freddie, abandons her social life; realizes that the relationship is one-sided, that to him she is little more than a conquest; and is ejected into a societal limbo, pitied by the two men, sympathized with by no one. Davies’ films rarely end happily, and when they do, it’s because Davies lingers on a fleeting moment of comfort, rather than because his narratives have come to a definitive, positive end. The solemnity of Davies’ characters – even in moments of ostensible joy – suggests an awareness on their part that their culture, along with the costumes, music, and social mores Davies lingers on, will soon come to an end. Their social fabric is haunted by the wreckage – more emotional/existential than physical – of the Second World War – and informed by an awareness of its own obsolescence. Accordingly, Davies is muted and reverent, as though realising the enormous weight that comes with using cinema to make a dead era come alive, sing, and hurt. When Bud walks with his family through a luminous funfair, the artificial lights in the background abstracted by the low depth of field (a rarity in Davies) into an abstract wash of colour and shapes, the joy feels more sensuous, more immediate, because it is bookened by moments of pain. At the end of The Long Day Closes, Bud finds comfort in talking to another classmate about an astronomy lesson in which he learned that if a person were to shine a flashlight directly into the sky, it would go on forever. As they sit on Bud’s roof, framed by two brick columns, their backs occupying the foreground, the background is filled with the otherworldly glow of the clouds shifting as the sun sets, a composition that recalls Manuel De Oliveira. In a more conventional film, the camera would cut closer to emphasize this moment of connection. Davies, however, tracks beyond the human figures and focuses on the sky itself, holding on it for four full minutes, moves back to make room for this growing passion; energy expands, taking up more space, and so the camera tracks out. The mundanity of the everyday moment is lent a heightened sense of grandiosity when placed in a cosmic context.

The Long Day Closes

A passionate yet fragile woman’s self-destructive attachment to abusive men is also at the centre of Sunset Song. Although seemingly more classical in its construction than Davies’ previous films, the radical ellipses and low-key abstractions communicate a unique and deeply considered worldview, as in late Ford. Elegantly summed up in the words of Chris’ school friend (in the type of plainspoken poetry that has come to define Davies’ dialogue), “there are lovely things in the world. Lovely that don’t endure. And they’re lovelier for that.” The circular nature of history and the ways in which a person is tied to his culture through language and environment are at the forefront of the narrative here. Davies’ preoccupation with the transience of the present moment takes centre stage. All of society is a constant ebb and flow; fashions, habits, social structures are constantly shifting, but the essential human impulses these external markers express remain essentially the same. Though certain moments linger strong in one’s memory, we are in actuality propelled forward by unknowable currents; all of creation is forever in motion. Irrational chaos can erupt at any instant, but will ultimately be quelled by the balance of time’s passage. Sunset Song, his first to take place within a rural landscape, contrasts the relative pettiness of his character’s concerns with the permanence of the land. Human connections are fleeting, and every negative feeling with be smoothed out by the relentless march of time, as, again, in late Ford. Chris is a bit of a masochist; her life is structured as a series of cycles of attraction and abuse; she is thus a perfect character to demonstrate a desire for stability amidst the relentless forward passage of time. Davies treats his heroine’s life as being fairly ordinary, yet lends it the weight of myth by contextualizing it within the everlasting continuum of the shifting land of the northeastern Scotland countryside. Gibbon’s novel begins with a brief description of the history of the area, compressing centuries worth of history into a few pages, skimming from the mid twelfth century to the early twentieth, before zeroing in on Chris’ experience. Davies creates a similar sense of weight through a simple crane shot, overwhelming the screen with images of a wheat field, before locating Chris in the space and twirling around her, at once emphasizing her connection to the land and her comparative ephemerality.

Sunset Song

Chris is a largely passive character. She spends most of the narrative being pushed into circumstances by the men around her with an attitude of quiet acceptance – her one defining action is in fact an omission, doing nothing when she could have offered help to her ailing father, resulting in his death. Chris narrates her story with bone-dry, storybook-simple voice-over narration. Davies is prodding at the distinction between lived experience and the recitation of stories about life, making a point of reminding us of these squabbling humans’ smallness in relation to the land on which they work, love, reproduce, age, and die. She is a character that could be described through the maxim of Marty Mahr from Ford’s The Long Gray Line – “persist, persist.” If Davies finds a sense of tragic heroism in Chris’ cultural sensitivity, sustenance, and strength of character – in this sense, Chris recalls the tyrannized earth mothers of Davies’ early work – the authoritarian rigidness of her father John and, later, her husband Ewan represents the cyclical nature of patriarchal violence rampart in her community.

Davies’ protagonists tend to be masochistic – they unconsciously relive the tragedies of their past through co-dependent cycles of abuse. In Sunset Song, Chris brings a tray of food into a barn to a male ranch worker. Failing to find him, she places the tray on the ground, and Davies’ camera tracks down in tandem with her movements. Instead of panning back up as she does, the image remains focused on her ankles, and the worker enters the frame, crawling as though propelled by a primal pull, from the right, wrapping his arms around her legs, gently caressing and licking them, and pulling down her socks partway. As elsewhere in Davies, the erotic impulse is tied to guilt, self-hatred, uncertainty. The camera cuts to one of Davies’ rare tight close-ups as Chris stands there completely still, ambiguous as to whether she is paralyzed in fear or enjoying the experience. She pulls away, leaving the worker cowering in the hay like a feral creature, watching her go before sliding back into the darkness. We see such paradoxical mixtures of sex and shame throughout Davies work: in Madonna and Child, Robert is in the confession booth, abstracted by Davies’ camera into a blackened non-space, only faces visible, which triggers a memory of a homosexual encounter in an identical chamber – a space sanctified, now desecrated – as Robert performs fellatio on a large man whose face is similarly obscured – this time with an S&M mask. In The Long Day Closes, Bud prays at a chapel while having painful, vivid mental images of Jesus being hammered to the cross, his bare torso lingered on and eroticized until, at the end of the sequence, the man screams directly into the lens, jarring Bud out of his stupor. Following this, Davies then cuts to Chris standing before her bedroom mirror, naked, studying her own form as if in awe of her awakening sexuality and the power her body is able to hold over the men around her, as in Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer.

The final stretch of Sunset Song stands, to this writer’s eyes, as one of the most profoundly metaphysical moments of twenty-first-century cinema. Davies’ cinema has always been preoccupied with how material objects, particularly spaces, come to be material embodiments of memories, dreams, the remembrances of things past. Here, a simple shift in light in Chris’ dining room seems to be the embodiment of Ewan’s spirit, as if by replicating the material conditions he once occupied, he can be briefly resurrected; Davies cross-dissolves to a wide, richly textured landscape shot of the Scottish countryside at dusk, the horizon bisecting the frame, and then to a reverse shot of Chris, wrapped in a shawl, gazing outward at the point where land meets sky. A classical Scottish tune overwhelms the soundscape as Davies cuts to an abstract image of a man playing the bagpipes, perched atop a steep hill, framed in profile, transformed by the harsh background light into a silhouette, taking on an eternal, mythic quality. It recalls Mary Mahr’s death in The Long Gray Line, wherein a single gesture sees the life drain from her body, as she moves from one existence to the next – not an afterlife (Davies and Ford are too secular in their filmmaking for an afterlife to be realized explicitly) but a new form of existence in the memories of those who knew them, as physical particles returning to the land, as the physical objects that carry echoes of their life, and their endurance in the larger culture.

Sunset Song