No sentiment captures
cinephilia’s deranging power — its ability to whet an appetite that can never
be fully sated — quite like this one: “At seven, I discovered the movies, loved them, and swallowed them whole…. I gorged myself with a regularity that would shame a sinner.” Delivered with orotund crispness by the director himself, the lines are from the narration
of Terence Davies’s documentary-memoir Of Time and the City (2008), his acidulous, rueful ode to Liverpool, where he was born in 1945. Davies addresses movie madness in his highly autobiographical first two features. But his mastery of the medium itself, amply evident in his signature sinuous camerawork and exacting
attention to lighting and sound design, suffuses every title in his filmography thus far, a small, exquisite body of work that consists of three shorts and seven features made over the past forty years. All will screen — on celluloid, with one exception — at the Museum of the Moving Image during the next two weeks, a tribute that includes a preview of the director’s latest, the majestic Sunset Song, before its theatrical release on May 13.
In a career defined by looking back,
Davies has distinguished himself as a
premier nostalgist. But his reminiscences, no matter how impassioned, are never mawkish. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), his feature debut, is first-person history at a remove: Davies, the youngest of ten children in a working-class Catholic family, imagines his clan in the years before he was born. Three adult siblings and their mother grapple with memories of the
recently deceased head of the household (ferociously played by Pete Postlethwaite), a savage patriarch in whom the capacity for tenderness hadn’t been completely
extinguished. The dreariness of postwar penury is alleviated by pub sing-alongs; several characters ebulliently trill Ella Fitzgerald, Hoagy Carmichael, and Johnny Mercer standards. (No fan of
his hometown’s most famous export, the Beatles, Davies peevishly avers in Of Time and the City, “After the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, my interest in pop music declined.”)
The joy afforded by belting these
beautifully crafted tunes recalls another shrewd observation in Of Time and the City: Davies’s characterization of the
U.K. in the 1950s and ’60s as “a nation
deprived of luxury relishing these small delights.” The apex of these mini ecstasies is cinemagoing: In Distant Voices, Still Lives, rapt viewers gaze up at the screen
at the local movie palace where Guys and Dolls and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing play nightly. The transporting bliss of sitting in a darkened theater is the central theme of The Long Day Closes (1992), Davies’s most autobiographical work, in which his eleven-year-old stand-in, Bud (Leigh McCormack), nestled in a balcony seat, is enhaloed by the film projector’s light. A movie of endless raptures, The Long Day Closes transforms Debbie Reynolds’s 1957 spun-sugar hit “Tammy” into a profound hymn, using the song to score a scene of slow overhead tracking shots of bodies assembled at the movies, in church, at school. (Davies’s most epiphanic movie experience, as he relates in Of Time and the City, occurred when, as a teenager struggling with “dark desires,” he saw Basil Dearden’s 1961
social-awareness thriller Victim,
one of the first films to plead tolerance for same-sexing.)
Save for Of Time and the City, all of
Davies’s projects after The Long Day Closes have been lush, nimble adaptations, which he has written as well as directed, of
decades-old books or a play, each elevated by exceptional performances by the lead actress: Gena Rowlands in The Neon Bible (1995), Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth (2000), Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea (2011), and now Agyness Deyn in Sunset Song. At once solemn and lusty,
Davies’s page-to-screen transfer of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel beautifully conveys human fragility, our bodies and minds outmatched by the brute indifference of nature or war — or by the cruelties inflicted by those closest to us.
“There are lovely things in the world, lovely things that do not endure. And
are the lovelier for that,” Chris Guthrie (Deyn), the rugged, school-loving heroine, says at the midpoint of the film, which opens around 1910 and ends shortly after World War I. The protagonist is deeply tied to the land, as the terrific first scene underscores: The camera swoops across an immense field of wheat in the Mearns of northeast Scotland, settling on an obscured, reclining figure; Chris sits up, all of her lanky body now legible, though still dwarfed by the amber waves of grain. (To reinforce the vastness of the landscape, Davies shot all exterior scenes on 65mm.)
Chris, one of the oldest in an ever-expanding brood of siblings, is the darling of her tyrannical father, John (Peter Mullan), an ogre who suggests a sick progenitor of the abusive dad in Distant Voices, Still Lives. But after John suffers a stroke and Chris is left to care for him, she too must fend off his maltreatment. Eventually freed from him and all other family ties, the stalwart young woman finds love in the charming farmhand Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). “So that was her marriage. Not like waking from a dream, but like going into one,” the offscreen narrator says. Despite their physical discrepancies — Deyn, a former model, is at least a head taller than Guthrie — the actors generate tremendous electricity, the erotic spell Chris and Ewan fall under never in question.
The reverie ends when Ewan enlists
to fight in the Great War. “Country and king — what do they have to do with my Ewan?” Chris cries. That piercing lament echoes nicely with one of the most damning, dismissive lines in Of Time and the City: Davies’s reference to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation as the start of “the Betty Windsor show.” Even when working from source material crafted by others, Davies, like all singular filmmakers,
imprints it with his DNA.
Museum of the Moving Image
Directed by Terence Davies
Opens May 13, Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas