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Davies, Terence (1945-)

Director, Writer

Main image of Davies, Terence (1945-)

Terence Davies was born in Liverpool on 10 November 1945, the youngest child in a large working-class family. After working for ten years as a clerk in a shipping office and a book-keeper in an accountancy firm, he entered Coventry School of Drama in 1971. There he wrote the script for Children, which he directed after he left with backing from the BFI Production Board. He then went to the National Film School, where he completed Madonna and Child as his graduation film in 1980. Three years later, thanks to funding from the Greater London Arts Association and the BFI, he made Death and Transfiguration. These three short to medium-length films comprise The Terence Davies Trilogy, which put him on the cinematic map as one of the most original British film-makers of the late 20th century.

In the Trilogy and the two films that followed, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), Davies reconstructs his childhood and youth in a working-class district of Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s. His alter ego, called Robert Tucker in the later films, is shy and introverted; his teachers and peers treat this as testimony to his mental slowness and an excuse to bully him. His family life is traumatised by his violent and unpredictable father, who regularly harasses his sisters and his mother, the most important person in his life. Another cause of unhappiness is his homosexuality. The pain of being different is exacerbated by his Catholic upbringing, which makes him believe that homosexuality is the gravest sin possible. Yet Davies regards the past with nostalgia as well as resentment. All the films are imbued with tender memories of the communality of working-class life and the old forms of entertainment, such as listening to the wireless, visiting the cinema, and singing together.

The uniqueness of Davies' representation of the past lies in the way he uses cinematic means to convey the fragmented nature of memory and the partial knowledge of his young protagonist. Instead of using a smooth narrative, we receive a succession of loosely connected episodes, with no dominant story line. A moving image is sometimes replaced by a discoloured photograph to convey the impression of time frozen by memory and to emphasise the gap between the real and a recollected past. Thanks to the subjective camera, objects lose their hard, material existence, becoming only shadows on the wall or floor. Such a technique also suggests that children - his viewpoint characters in all his films except The House of Mirth - tend to over-interpret facts and mix truth with fiction. He also makes extensive use of songs, which play as important a role as dialogue in revealing his characters' feelings.

In 1984 Davies published a novel, Hallelujah Now, based on his memories of life in Liverpool; he turned to someone else's autobiographical novel for his next film (1994). The Neon Bible, written in secret by John Kennedy Toole when he was sixteen, is set in Georgia in the American South, but it shares thematic, stylistic and ideological similarities with Davies' earlier work, such as the constricting influence of religion, the special bond between a boy and older women, male violence (at one point the father takes his sensitive son to a Ku Klux Klan lynching), and the distorted nature of memory. The novel is set during and shortly after the Second World War, a period Davies had already explored in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. As in those films, his adaptation of The Neon Bible leaves the viewer with a bitter-sweet mixture of pain and nostalgia.

The House of Mirth (2000) marks Davies' furthest departure from his childhood obsessions. Based, like Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (US, 1993), on a novel by Edith Wharton set in America at the beginning of 20th century, the main theme explores the struggle of an individual with a culture. In The Neon Bible Davies seemed to have difficulty connecting with the feelings of his characters, but here he offers penetrating insights into an emerging American industrial society defined by greed, narcissism and hypocrisy. The fight ends in the defeat of the heroine (Gillian Anderson), confirming Davies' view that against the backdrop of history an individual human being is only a particle of dust.

Davies' carefully composed tableaux and highly stylised narratives have led to him being grouped with Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. But Davies is no post-modernist: his use of popular songs and constant allusions to Hollywood musicals reflect a sincere affection for popular culture. Davies' intensely emotional cinema makes him unique among contemporary British film-makers.

Coe, Jonathan, 'Jolly and Grim', Sight and Sound, Oct. 1995, pp. 12-14
Davies, Terence, A Modest Pageant (London: Faber and Faber, 1992)
Eley, Geoff, 'Distant Voices, Still Lives: The Family is a Dangerous Place: Memory, Gender and the Image of the Working Class', in Robert A. Rosenstone (ed.), Revisioning History: The Construction of a New Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
Horne, Philip, 'Beauty's Slow Fade', Sight and Sound, Oct. 2000, pp. 14-18
Hunt, Martin, The Poetry of the Ordinary: Terence Davies and the Social Art Cinema', Screen, Spring 1999, pp. 1-16
Powrie, Phil, 'On the Threshold Between Past and Present' in Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson (eds.) British Cinema, Past and Present (London: Routledge, 2000)
Williams, Tony, 'The Masochist Fix: Gender Oppression in the Films of Terence Davies' in Lester Friedman (ed.) British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: UCL Press, 1993)

Ewa Mazierska, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Children (1976)Children (1976)

The first part of the Terence Davies Trilogy

Thumbnail image of Death and Transfiguration (1983)Death and Transfiguration (1983)

The final part of the Terence Davies trilogy

Thumbnail image of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies' two-part portrait of a working-class Liverpool family

Thumbnail image of Madonna and Child (1980)Madonna and Child (1980)

The second part of the Terence Davies Trilogy

Thumbnail image of Of Time and the City (2008)Of Time and the City (2008)

Terence Davies' gorgeous film-poem about his native Liverpool

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