“Every new Terence Davies film feels like a miracle,” we wrote in our rave review of the British auteur’s masterful new “Sunset Song.” Stunningly adapted from Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel about a stoic young woman who grows from being the daughter of a violent zealot to the bride of a World War I conscript, this flowing epic seems like a far cry from the explicitly autobiographical films that established Davies as a giant of contemporary cinema (e.g. “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes”). And yet — in its own abstract way — the bucolic melodrama can be read as yet another chapter in one of the medium’s most vital autobiographies.
Raised by a brutish father as a child and tormented by his own homosexuality as a young man, Davies has since used movies in order to reckon with the shame and suffering of his formative years. Now 70 years old and with a handful of genuine masterpieces to his name, the lad from Liverpool remains under-appreciated in his own time, and still faces great difficulty in financing his films. Despite the enormous critical success of 2000’s Edith Wharton adaptation “The House of Mirth,” Davies spent most of the aughts weathering an onslaught of rejection. The situation grew so dire that he was eventually forced to make peace with the idea that “Mirth” might be his last film.
Fortunately, he persevered. Beginning with 2008’s intimate documentary “Of Time and the City” and continuing with a trio of films about strong women who are straightjacketed by patriarchal times, Davies has authored one of his medium’s most extraordinary renaissances. Now, thanks to “Sunset Song” (in theaters this Friday) and his extraordinary collaboration with model-actress Agyness Deyn, the most understandably bitter voice in British film may be looking up for the first time in his life. Indiewire had the opportunity to sit down with Davies during one of his rare visits to New York, where he discussed the sting of rejection, the power of forgiveness, and why he isn’t impressed by your muscles.
His First Encounter with “Sunset Song”
I was only in my twenties when the miniseries aired on the BBC. It used to be on Sunday nights. In those days you couldn’t record anything, so I had to wait each week for the next installment. I bought the novel when the show was over because I wanted to read it — I was a lowly bookkeeper at the time, and never thought that I would go into the arts. I just read it because I loved it.
On Second Chances
After “House of Mirth,” I didn’t work for 10 years; no one would give me anything, and the climate in Britain became extremely philistine. I thought “Well, if ‘House of Mirth’ is my last film, it’s not half-bad to end one’s life on.’ But the 10 years of no one being interested does change you. I don’t know quite how, but I felt it. I certainly feel a great deal different than I did before. That might also be that I’m just getting older — your perception of the world changes, and you think “Oh, why did I get so upset about this? Isn’t it all so silly?” There’s a lot of silliness around, especially in the arts. I used to get angry about it, but now I just think it looks silly.
But I have had a secret bite of the cherry. I’ve been very, very lucky — some people don’t even have a first chance. I was at film school with a lad who should have gotten work. His style was not on my street, but he had talent. And you think “Why can’t he get something off the ground, when the same people get money all the time because they have the same people in them and they’re nice and safe stories, usually about Edwardian England.” God almighty, does anybody care!?
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His Star, Agyness Deyn
Ultimately, I’m glad the film happened when it did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have worked with Agyness. She’s just extraordinary. Had it not been for the delays, she still would have been still at school, for God’s sake! But it did a lot of damage to me when no one was interested. You meet with people and you can see boredom creeping over them. “How long before I can get him out of the room?” I could do without that. But Agyness revived my heart. She stuck with the movie for 18 months. Two of the actors turned down work for two years. That kind of commitment…how can you not feel wonderful about that?
Never Outgrowing The Sting of Rejection
You can’t alter certain things in your psyche. My father, who died just before I was seven, was very violent and hated me. I’m always looking for approval and validation. It’s ridiculous at 70 years of age, but I want to be liked. It’s absurd! But it goes back to that…when someone makes you know that you’re despised simply because you exist. I don’t mind people saying that they don’t like a film of mine; that’s a disappointment. But when they use that as a vehicle to attack you, that is incredibly cruel, and one writer in particular has done a great deal of damage. I’ve said, “If I thought I could strangle him and get away with it, I would strangle him.” But I don’t want to go to Sing Sing for the rest of my life.
The Blurred Lines Between Adaptation and Autobiography
You know, my manager said that “A Quiet Passion” is the most autobiographical film that I’ve made. There are certain things that speak to me…I don’t know why they’re powerful, but subjects standing at a window with light falling on them I just find ravishing. Staircases as well — I’ve got a big thing for staircases. Those things recur subconsciously, and that’s how it should be. Any kind of influence should always come out refracted, not the same.
It does so happen that in “Sunset Song” there is a violent father, but by the same token he can also be tender. The tenderness that was brought to the role was entirely down to Peter, because he uses the lower register of the voice, which is actually quite beguiling and tender. So that when he does turn it’s really terrifying. And when you’re dealing with a person like that character, you’re given love and then it’s withdrawn. What do you want? You want the love. You always want the love from the people who withheld it from you.
The Pain of Tapping into His Past
It’s odd things that make it unbearable, because of the truth of the performances. There’s a scene in the film where Chris is holding Ewan’s clothes — it’s not in the book. We did three takes, and it’s not because she’s crying, but there’s something so pure and absolutely devastating about it. She has reached the nadir of her life, and she can only forgive because she’s reached that level of despair. That was very, very hard for me to watch. Very hard. There’s a piece in “A Quiet Passion” that was so powerful I had to ask the producer to call “cut” — I couldn’t speak. I’m sitting there completely moist from crying. But it’s always something very small that someone will do, and they very often do it not thinking, but that makes it all the more powerful.
The Abuse of Religious Authority
It’s evil, it’s utterly evil. I remember going to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the second collection was for the priest. That was called the “silver collection,” because you couldn’t put any coppers in it. And there was a horrible priest called Father Byrne, and he said “The next collection is a silver collection, and if you think this is an opportunity to get rid of your coppers, don’t bother.” And this was a working class parish! I remember being appalled. I thought “How can you say that?” The people there only had copper to give, and nothing else. And so for the scene in “Sunset Song” where the priest calls the young men of Aberdeen cowards, what I wanted to get was…bathed in the light of God, and what do you get? “Go out and kill other people.” So much for religion.
“Sunset Song” is about forgiveness — the forgiveness of all suffering. There’s an English poet called Philip Larkin who wrote a wonderful poem called “An Arundel Tomb” about a medieval tomb. And the last lines are “But what will survive of us is love.” And I never understood that until I read “Sunset Song.” I wanted it to be a complete acceptance of the world of suffering, and then somehow it’s not so terrible. And the world can be terrible, but it can also be wonderful, and you have to take both. They both have to have equal weight. And once you forgive, somehow you are rescued from the past. We are unique as a species: We can despair but we can hope. Even when there’s no reason to, we can hope.
Why War Turns Men into Monsters
In the book, there’s no explanation as to why Ewan goes off to war as a kind man and comes back a horrible one. For me, it’s because he’s seen the casualty lists — 52,000 men were killed or injured in the first hour of the fighting. I mean it literally wiped out an entire generation of British men. And Ewan is just terrified. He starts to drink, he starts to go with prostitutes, but it’s fear. For some people, the scene before he’s executed doesn’t redeem him, but it does for me. Because he loves her so much that he wants her redemption, and she gives it to him, because all she’s got is his clothes. Some people don’t accept that at all, but I think that’s why he’s done it.
What do you do when you know that your life span is like 3 weeks? What do you do when you see those crosses — endless crosses — and you think, “How could these generals send these young men to their death?” None of them knew what they were doing. It was monstrous.
The First Movie He Ever Saw
It was six months after my father died, and It was “Singin’ in the Rain.” After the title sequence I couldn’t stop crying. My sister asked, “What’s the matter?” and I just said, “He looks so happy.” I’d never seen anybody look so happy in my life. I was only seven, but I hadn’t. It was such a profound experience, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It was a wonderful introduction…of course I was too young to appreciate the wonderful Jean Hagen. She says, “Gee, this wig weighs a ton! What dope would wear a thing like this?” “Everybody used to wear them, Lina.” “Well, then everybody was a dope!”
Why He Doesn’t See New Movies
I don’t go to the cinema, anymore. I can’t suspend my disbelief, anymore. I’m very conscious of cinema syntax. If you can call the shots out, you think, “What are they doing there?” And you have the thing where people are wanting to act all over the place. Wide, mid, close-up close-up, mid — it’s a dead language. It has nothing expressive to say. What’s interesting is not what happens next, but what happens emotionally next, and you the audience must figure out the ambiguity that arises between those cuts or a dissolve. That’s your job. Even if your interpretation is that you’re bored stiff and the film is bloody awful, that’s the way it should be.
When the Movies Lost Their Magic
For me, the cinema lost its glow by the late ’50s or early ’60s. There was a glow about those movies, even the ones that aren’t very good. There was real love for actors, particularly supporting actors. We were just a working class family in Liverpool, but if Thelma Ritter was in something, we had to go see it. “You’ve got to go, Thelma Ritter is in it!” She was really loved, and what a wonderful actress. Nominated eight times and she never won. Once, love for these people was so tangible.
It’s terribly boring. It’s very difficult to show something that is erotic, and it’s not the same as having no clothes on. I’m very good at misery and death — I’m really good at that. But not sex. I don’t want something to be obvious, and sex isn’t that interesting. There was a 1970s British MP who said “The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable.” And part of me feels like that. I was brought up strict Catholic, and I was gay, and I don’t want to see it. I want it to merely be implied, and that probably is a weakness, but I’m not interested in the mechanics of it. I’m much more interested in the love between them. Once they start cutting to hands clutching, I just think “Oh, here we go.”
There should be a certain poise about things. That’s true of sex, and it’s true of violence as well. People who drool over it, you just want to say, “Spend a week with someone who’s psychotic.” Believe me, it’s not funky, it’s not entertaining, it’s horrible. And people who drool over it, I think there’s something wrong with them. My father was psychotic, I don’t want to see people tortured. Now it’s either that, or the worst thing of all: People running around with guns. And they’ve got pectorals bigger than…and I just think I’m not interested. So you go to the gym — how fabulous for you.
Knowing His Audience
Well you can’t go and think what the audience will do. That’s the only time I lose my temper, when people say, “The audience will think…” Well, you don’t know that! You only know after the fact, and by then it’s too late. You can say, “I think the audience might think that.” That’s fair enough, but don’t tell me you know, because you don’t.
“Sunset Song” opens in theaters on Friday.