Thank goodness Davies experienced his late-career appreciation – he was a director of high seriousness and singularity and a man of vulnerability and true good humour
By Peter Bradshaw
Terence Davies was the great British movie artist of working class Catholic experience and gay identity, a passionate believer and practitioner of cinema. And was also a wonderfully stylish and self-assured presence in person, with a gorgeously resonant voice that might have belonged to a stage matinee idol.
I raised a glass of rose with a beaming Davies and Mark Cousins at the 2008 Cannes film festival after the triumphant premiere of Of Time and the City, Davies’s wonderful, personal docu-collage about his home city of Liverpool, a place he resurrected on screen with love and without cliche.
And from that moment, he had the satisfaction of knowing that the years of relative neglect that he had been suffering as a film-maker were over, and that he was a presence again in world cinema.
He was one of the great personal and autobiographical film-makers – with Of Time and the City, of course, but also his fervent evocation of childhood in The Long Day Closes (1992), his unflinchingly passionate and painful masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1983) and his early, mysterious trilogy Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) – superb films which, in literary terms, might be compared with Beckett or BS Johnson.
The key word is transfiguration. For Davies, the act of memory and cinema transfigured the pain and shame of what he endured of abuse and bigotry in his own life. Without irony or affectation, he brought his early religious belief into parallel with these childhood experiences: these were his stations of the cross. Like Proust, he saw the awful link between art and pain as the agents of truth and the fixity of meaning.
His films – especially his earliest and most personal works – were not easy experiences, nor were they meant to be. His Distant Voices, Still Lives is unforgettable, perhaps because the adjectives in the title are so misleading. The voices are immediately present, the lives vividly in motion. The film’s austerity, beauty and artistry are a revelation. It is as gripping as any thriller and Davies finds a towering performance in the great actor Pete Postlethwaite as the terrifying dad who rules over his working class family with fear – but is secretly convulsed with fear himself and is capable of humour and gentleness. Davies’s attitude is complex, and in this film you can see another of his great themes: the urge to forgive and the terrible burden it places on you.
The Long Day Closes, from 1992, was another epiphanic study of childhood, a cine-poem of early experience and here Davies – like Fellini, Scorsese, Truffaut and Spielberg – evokes the moviegoing as a religious observance, but with pleasure where the shame and misery might otherwise go. His shot of sunlight drifting across a carpet is a thing of wonder: these are things that children look at and adults forget to see.
As the 90s wore on, Davies found it more difficult to get movies made, but his adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible in 1995 transferred his distinctive worldview to an American setting.
So too did his superb treatment of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 2000, starring Gillian Anderson, a Wharton adaptation that easily stands comparison with Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
In his later career, Davies took on literary adaptations – conceding, perhaps, that these were more commercially acceptable and produced them at the highest pitch of intelligence and feeling. His version of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea in 2011 was a very Daviesian account of loneliness and romantic love with Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz; he brought the same intensity and severity to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song in 2015. His last film, Benediction, was a fine study of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, returning, to some degree, to his earlier themes of gay sexuality and the way secular passions are displaced into forms of worship.
He had lately been working on a tremendous sounding adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – and we have to hope that this might yet be posthumously completed.
I should also record the rather extraordinary experience of recording an audio commentary with him and Matthew Guinness (son of Alec) of the Ealing movie Kind Hearts and Coronets. For him, communing with this classic was an almost ecstatic experience, a virtual seance of every creative contributor to the film, he seemed to know every line, every scene, every musical cue; his connoisseurship was compelling. He was a remarkable director.