Terence Davies, who has died aged 77, was a literate, high-minded British writer-director known for an intensely personal form of filmmaking that set him in conflict with the moneymen of his chosen industry, and which generated works more often appreciated overseas than they were at home. Yawning gaps in his filmography speak to long years of struggle within an ever more commercial medium; only late on in his career did he consistently find the acclaim, and the audiences, he deserved.
Davies broke through in the early 1980s – a golden age of publicly funded British cinema – with a trio of medium length works pieced together under the aegis of the British Film Institute: Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983). (The three were released commercially under the title of The Terence Davies Trilogy.)
Their protagonist Robert Tucker – encountered as a young man in Children, in middle age in Madonna and Child and in his dotage in Death and Transfiguration – was a surrogate of sorts for Davies’s own experiences growing up gay and devoutly Catholic in a working-class Liverpudlian neighbourhood. Rigorous and exacting, searing Tucker’s troubled recollections onto the scratchiest of black-and-white film stock, the films were uningratiating in the extreme – the New York Times critic Vincent Canby asserted the Trilogy “makes Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis” – but they announced a defiantly individualistic talent capable of finding flickers of redemptive poetry in the everyday.
Davies used the Trilogy as a springboard to complete a pair of dramas that, if they weren’t entirely autobiographical, nevertheless felt very close to home. Both Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), centred on a family living in the shadow of an abusive alcoholic patriarch (Pete Postlethwaite), and The Long Day Closes (1992), a love letter to the picture palaces Davies frequented as a boy, were distinguished by their immersive, poignant detail. An elegantly roving camera panned over wallpaper faded by sunlight to reach a mantelpiece crowded with family photos; in the raucous pub scenes, you could all but smell the best bitter soaked into the carpet.
The leading American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of Distant Voices: “Years from now, when practically all the other new movies currently playing are long forgotten, it will be remembered and treasured as one of the greatest of all English films.” Yet Davies’ non-linear narratives, measured pacing and melancholy tone marked him out as both an emergent film artist and a distinctly tough sell as the movies pressed on into the modern blockbuster era.
He sought to expand his canvas with the Film4-backed The Neon Bible (1995), a starry adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s 1940s-set novel. Though not without its virtues – Rosenbaum observed “there are many fleeting poetic moments… moments so ecstatic that you may feel yourself rising off your seat” – it struggled to match the specificity of its director’s domestic features, and disappeared without much trace upon release. Davies was brutally honest in his assessment: “It doesn’t work, and that’s entirely my fault.”
There were higher hopes for The House of Mirth (2000), Davies’s filigreed adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel, which came to the screen with a bankable star attached in The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson, serving early notice of her considerable dramatic gifts as Wharton’s doomed heroine Lily Bart. (The perennially lofty Davies insisted he hadn’t seen a single episode of The X-Files before casting Anderson.)
Yet despite rave reviews and a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film, it too became a box-office disappointment, failing to find an audience amid the first wave of superhero movies and hipper, flashier diversions from the reinvigorated independent cinema. Davies later confessed to the despair he felt at the film’s underperformance: “I really did think: it’s all over now.”
Several wilderness years followed, yet his old friends at the BFI boosted his visibility by awarding Davies their Fellowship in 2007, and the following year, he returned with the essay film Of Time and the City (2008), a triumphant excavation of both his own memories of post-WW2 Liverpool and the National Film Archives.
After two tricky literary adaptations, this potent collage of found footage felt like Davies rediscovering his own voice: with its idiosyncratic phrasing and onomatopoeic riffs on such uniquely British minutiae as the football results and the shipping forecast, his narration was almost as evocative as the images. Critics adored it; audiences – keen to see themselves or their forefathers on screen – showed up; and two questions Davies posed at the top and tail seemed to crystallise his entire filmography: “Do you remember? Will you ever forget?”
Terence Davies was born in Liverpool on November 10, 1945, the youngest of ten children. His was a brutal childhood: the incident in Distant Voices, Still Lives where the abusive father viciously beats his son in the cellar with a broomstick was apparently drawn from reality. Suffering from cripplingly low self-esteem, the young Davies sought shelter in the cinema and the church. “I was terribly devout,” Davies later recollected. “I prayed literally until my knees bled.”
While Catholicism appealed to his masochistic side, it was the cinema – with its promises of guiltless pleasure – which exerted a more enduring hold on his affections. Though voracious in his tastes, he favoured melodramas and the films of Doris Day, eventually listing Day’s 1954 vehicle Young at Heart among his ten picks in Sight & Sound magazine’s Greatest Films poll.
He left school at 16 to work as a shipping office clerk and then a bookkeeper in an accountancy firm, yet found scant enjoyment in either: “I was twelve years in a job I absolutely detested; you just felt you were dying by the centimetre. I saw a lot of people go under. In the offices I worked in, they hated every minute of it, and dread[ed] when they got to 65, being given a Teasmade in the boardroom.”
In 1971, however, he left Liverpool to study acting at Coventry Drama School, and it was there that he started writing the screenplay that eventually became Children. After that script found favour with the BFI Production Board, he signed up at the National Film School in London, shooting Madonna and Child as his graduation film.
Though he never appeared on film, his acting studies didn’t go entirely to waste. As a series of Q&As attached to Of Time and the City first suggested, Davies was an eminently quotable interviewee, cinephiles flocking to hear this waspish, snowy-haired figure speaking wittily and often vituperatively about the state of the industry, and his status within it. Asked by one sceptical audience member why his films were so slow and depressing, Davies’s response was immediate and priceless: “It’s a gift.”
After receiving the BFI Fellowship, there was a sense that Davies was at last being embraced as something like a national treasure. His contemporary romcom Mad About the Boy and Stefan Zweig adaptation The Post-Office Girl remained unfunded, but he retained a sure touch with period material. The Deep Blue Sea (2011) – a handsome adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play, shot in 25 days – was boosted by the star power of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, and its modest commercial success enabled Davies to realise a long-cherished passion project.
Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel about a farmgirl’s unsentimental education, had struck a deep chord with Davies: “It’s about forgiveness and accepting what has happened, and not being bitter, which is what my mother did. These are the cards you are dealt, so you get on with it and don't complain. That I find enormously moving.” His big-screen adaptation of 2015 met with generally favourable reviews, critics praising the sumptuous landscape photography and a deeply felt central performance by the former model Agyness Deyn.
By then, Davies had seemingly learnt how to pursue his own interests within long-established systems of funding and exhibition: Sunset Song was rapidly followed by A Quiet Passion (2016), a distinctively wordy biopic of the poet Emily Dickinson, with Sex & The City star Cynthia Nixon in the lead. Ever frank, Davies told Nixon he had found her breakthrough show “pernicious”, and that he watched several episodes with the sound off, casting her based on the truthfulness of her reaction shots.
Nevertheless, theirs was a fruitful collaboration, earning Davies the support from American critics he hadn’t received upon the release of The Neon Bible. His final film was Benediction (2021), a characteristically elegant and moving biopic of Siegfried Sassoon that cut back and forth between Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi as the war poet's younger and older selves.
Davies himself enjoyed writing poetry (“It's just you and the paper and no one is going to say: this is going to cost £50,000”); he also penned a novel (1984’s Hallelujah Now, resuming the story of the Trilogy’s Robert Tucker), a memoir (Travels in Celluloid, 1998) and two radio plays: A Walk to the Paradise Garden (for Radio 3, 2001) and an adaptation of Woolf’s The Waves (for Radio 4, 2007). He spent his twilight years living alone on the South Coast: “I am celibate, although I think I would have been celibate even if I was straight because I’m not good-looking; why would anyone be interested in me? And nobody has been. Work was my substitute.”
Terence Davies, born November 10, 1945, died October 7, 2023.