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Filmmakers You Should Know: Terence Davies, Cinematic Poet of Mid-Century British Melodrama

Filmmakers You Should Know: Terence Davies, Cinematic Poet of Mid-Century British Melodrama

Editor’s Note: Filmmakers You Should Know is a regular column about working filmmakers who have amassed a significant body of work. This installment focuses on Terence Davies, whose “The Deep Blue Sea” opens today. Let us know about other filmmakers you would like to see featured in this column in the comments section.

For nearly 30 years, Terence Davies has maintained a reputation as one of British cinema’s brightest voices. However, during that period he has only made a half dozen features, excluding three early shorts that put him on the map. His latest effort, “The Deep Blue Sea,” opens in limited release this weekend a full decade after the filmmaker’s last narrative effort, “The House of Mirth.”

For those familiar with his work, it’s clear that time hasn’t robbed him of his interests, as “Deep Blue Sea” is distinctly in tune with everything preceding it: Almost all of Davies’ films take place in the immediate postwar, middle-class British climate where he grew up. Even the two deviations from this setting (“The Neon Bible” takes place around the same time in Georgia and “The House of Mirth” is set at the turn of the century) maintain Davies’ fixation on Catholic guilt and tortured souls coping with spiteful parents and lovers.

His solemn narratives are on an axis that draws heavily from the mournful tradition of Douglas Sirk — but they’re also masterful nostalgia trips, littered with melodies and lush, colorful images that evoke in an era in a truly lyrical fashion. Although Davies’ painstaking approach to period detail is evident in the amount of time between his various films, reports of his plans to adapt the Scottish novel “Sunset Song” as well as “Mother of Sorrows” suggest he has yet to grow tired of exploring the past.


“The Terence Davies Trilogy” (1984)

A compilation of Davies’ first three short films — the devastating “Children,” the experimental look at homosexual regret “Madonna and Child” and the powerfully evocative “Death and Transfiguration” — this trilogy displayed Davies’ penchant for intimate explorations of his own experiences as the chief source of inspiration.

“Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988)

A landmark portrait of 1950s Liverpool bolstered by Pete Postlethwaite in a monstrous, landmark performance as the overbearing man of the house, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” is divided into two parts made over the course of two years and following the same family. Light on plot and heavy on mood, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” is comprised of incidents and atmosphere to convey Davies’ memories.

“The Long Day Closes” (1992)

Davies’ sophomore feature takes an even grander step beyond conventional narrative with an immersive collage of small moments from the life of an alienated Liverpool child (Leigh McCormack) coping with bullies and hiding from the world with his beloved family. Another clear-cut assemblage of Davies memories, the movie also samples voiceover from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and spectacular fantasy sequences to convey the disconnect the the young Davies’ stand-in experiences in relation to the world around him.
“The House of Mirth” (2000)

Davies’ heartbreaking adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel stars Gillian Anderson as the energetic socialite Lily Bart, whose world gradually crumbles as she endures a cycle of romantic confusion culminating with tragic events. “Mirth” proved Davies was equally adroit at extending beyond his own childhood to convey the combination of solemnity and extraordinary beauty at the root of his style.

“Of Time and the City” (2008)

While Davies’ earlier films were blatantly personal, this documentary essay goes one step further. Davies narrates a gorgeous black-and-white tribute to his Liverpool childhood with a blend of existing footage from the era and extraordinary classical music selections, resulting in a supremely involving first-person guide to a period Davies remembers better than anyone. Although technically a diary film, “Of and the Time City” is also an essential work of cultural history.

“The Deep Blue Sea” (2011)

Returning to adaptations, Davies takes on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a depressed young woman (Rachel Weisz in her finest onscreen role since “The Constant Gardener”) torn between her stable marriage to a judge (Simon Russell Beale) and a passionate affair with a much younger air force pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Although in some ways simpler than Davies’ previous efforts, “The Deep Blue Sea” is still remarkably involving as it follows Weisz from one dramatic moment to the next in her never-ending quest to resolve an impossibly downbeat situation. Weisz delivers, but as always, the real star is Davies’ focus on fluid camerawork and tone.

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