In Life And In Film, The Past Is Ever Present For Director Terence Davies
Watching a Terence Davies film is like watching paintings come to life. On the other hand, the filmmaker jokes, "The people who don't like my films say it's about as interesting as paint drying."
Still, Davies (pronounced "Davis") has plenty of defenders. More than one critic has called him Britain's greatest living film director, and French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard — who was famously not a fan of British moviemakers — called Davies' 1988 full-length feature breakout, Distant Voices, Still Lives, "magnificent".
An Eye For Beautiful Melancholy
Davies' fans praise his use of light and shadow, music and silence; and they celebrate the way he digs into the past (especially his own) to tell emotionally-charged stories of families and women.
Yet over the course of his 40-year career, Davies has only released six full-length features and one documentary. His latest film is called Sunset Song. It stars Agyness Deyn as a young Scottish woman who must give up her dream of becoming a teacher to help her brutal father run the family farm in the years before World War I. Deyn is a relative newcomer to acting — you may have seen her in fashion magazines sporting Burberry or Armani — but the former top model impressed Davies from the get-go.
"I was going in to start auditioning for the film," Davies recalls. "Agyness was sitting at the top of the stairs, and I thought, 'God, she looks about 11.' And she came in — she was the first person in. She gave a wonderful audition and I turned to my producers and said, 'We've found her.' "
Scottish papers have given the actress from Manchester, England, props for her Scottish accent in the film, but there are plenty of shots where she doesn't speak at all. In several scenes, the camera lingers on Deyn's profile as her character stares out a window at her family's land. Davies credits Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer with inspiring him.
"I've always been fascinated — and I don't know why — by people at a window with light falling in on them," the filmmaker says. "And Vermeer is my great love. And Andy Harris, who was the production designer on Sunset Song, said to me, 'Have you come across some paintings by a Danish [painter] called Hammershoi?' "
Vilhelm Hammershoi painted around the turn of the 20th century. Davies says his canvases are "like Vermeer but with a kind of smudged Northern light. And they're very often about just windows and doors open with no one in them — empty corridors. When there is someone in them, it's usually a woman, usually with her back to the viewer. And there's a kind of melancholy there that I can't describe, but they are extremely beautiful. And I said, 'Well, we've got to make the interiors look like that.' "
The film's interiors were shot digitally, but for the landscapes Davies used 65 mm film. Sunset Song is the first of his fiction films to feature broad landscapes, and he jokes it may be the last. "The weather in Scotland can be pretty miserable," he says, so he shot the film's summer scenes in New Zealand.
The Happy Years
Despite his work being so visual, Davies seems to consider himself a writer. He quotes Anton Chekhov and Emily Dickinson off the top of his head. "I've always, always written," he says. "For instance, when I go abroad, I don't take photographs. I'd rather write about it because my still photographs really are dreadful."
His movies, however, are another matter. Deyn says she's been a fan ever since she saw Distant Voices, Still Lives, which tells the story of a working-class family in Liverpool. "His filmmaking kind of opened up my eyes to different ways to tell stories and to communicate the intensity which Terence does so well," Deyn says. "He leaves it up to the audience to kind of dub in what they imagine is going on — to project onto it what it is for you. And then it evokes so much feeling because you're actually a part of it."
Deyn had 18 months to research her role while Davies raised funds, and she was struck by the way two men — Davies and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the author of the 1932 novel on which Sunset Song is based — were able to capture the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in a world of farming and war.
He leaves it up to the audience to kind of dub in what they imagine is going on — to project onto it what it is for you. And then it evokes so much feeling because you're actually a part of it.
"Lewis Grassic Gibbon — when he wrote the book, people thought that he was a woman using a pseudo-name," Deyn says. "Because back in the day they thought that How could a man write from the point of view of a woman in the specific way that he did? And also Terence has the most wonderful view of women and their strength."
That view comes from Davies' childhood: He grew up in a working-class family of 10 kids in Liverpool. Davies was terrorized by a violent father who died when Davies was 6. The filmmaker says the years that followed were the happiest in his life, in part because of how often his sisters would take him to the movies.
"My greatest influence was the American musical," Davies says. "That's what my sisters loved and that's what I loved because they took me to see them. And I think you imbibe that like a kind of language."
Music plays a big part in all of Davies' films, including Sunset Song. That, too, goes back to his childhood: "When I was growing up, there was a program on BBC Radio on a Sunday night called Your Hundred Best Tunes and it was about classical music. And they played this recording of 'All in the April Evening' by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and I've never forgotten it."
He uses that recording in a scene from Sunset Song as farmers and their families cross the hills on their way to church. There, the priest exhorts them to go and fight after Britain declares war on Germany.
Learning To Forgive The Past
Davies remembers a lot from his past: hearing a radio adaptation of the novel Sunset Song when he was 17 or 18; hearing a handsome neighbor sing "Ghost Riders in the Sky" at one of his mother's parties; his father refusing to let his brother in the house after he'd gone AWOL — and his brother forcing his way in to confront their dad.
And he remembers church. "I was brought up a Catholic and I was a very devout one, too," he says. "But when I got into my teenage years and realized I was gay, I tried to live under the tenets of 'to be pure in thought, word and deed.' And it is impossible. I prayed until my knees bled and no succor came. And it's left a huge hole in me."
The past is something Davies, 70, has dealt with in all of his films, whether it's the struggles of others in other times — like the main characters in Sunset Song or his adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth -- or his own past and his abusive father.
"I have a great deal of difficulty in forgiving things that have been done to you in the past that have damaged you," he says. "And, in the end, you have to be able to forgive — otherwise you're always chained to the past."
Terence Davies has just finished his next movie and it, too, is set in the past: It's about 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.