Terence Davies: a retrospective

Terence Davies: a retrospective featured image

reviewed by Marc Glassman

Terence Davies: a retrospective. At Cinematheque Ontario. Jan. 23-Feb. 7 at the Jackman Hall, AGO 416-968-FILM for info & tix or Films include: Distant Voices, Still Lives: Terence Davies Trilogy; Long Day Closes; House of Mirth; The Neon Bible; Of Time and the City.

Resolute, intense and lonely, Terence Davies is a unique figure in British cinema. Over the past thirty years, he has created a small but distinguished body of work, none of which could have been made by anyone else. His films are romantic in the truest sense of the word: filled with longing, passion and the anguish of thwarted desire.

Seeing Davies’s best films — the short Children, the autobiographical fiction features Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and the current documentary Of Time and the City — is breathtaking and appalling. The films are beautiful to watch, replete with exquisite shots and evocative music. But they’re difficult to take, as the viewer understands the extent of the tragedy that the main character — clearly Davies — has encountered in his life.

Davies grew up gay and Catholic in post-World War II England. It was a time of rationing, uniformity and conservative thought. Britain had achieved a pyrrhic victory, defeating the Germans but dooming their Empire. Davies’ generation witnessed the slow erosion of British power and prestige — and felt the fear in the air.

Growing up “different” during that period was extraordinarily hard for many, including Africans, Asians and Caribbeans immigrating to their purported mother country, as well as Irish, Scots, Jews — and gays. In a way, Davies took up the cudgels for all denigrated minorities with his cinema. But it’s specific as well— after all, it’s great art.

In Davies films, the precise framing, the use of montage, the direction of the actors all point to one thing: the everlasting loneliness of the sensitive individual placed unwillingly in situations that demand conformity. Love is something his characters find in bathroom stalls, not churches — but they can never admit it. A boy can love his mother but not another boy.

Seeking refuge in the church — its sacraments and above all, gorgeous music — offers Davies’s protagonists something to admire in the midst of a hypocrisy that they came to loathe. Apart from the church and furtive attempts at love, there is no place for his characters to roam. All around is the grey fact of Liverpool and an environment where angry fathers and suppressed mothers make a mockery of parental devotion.

Terence Davies’ films are, to paraphrase the British novelist Ford Maddox Ford, “the saddest stories you’ve ever heard.” His images, characters and music are etched in the mind and spirit of those who are open to his tragic embrace.

Cinematheque Ontario’s retrospective of Davies’ work is long overdue. This is essential cinema. Go and see it.

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