The Sense of the Past: Terence Davies (1945–2023)

By Lawrence Garcia

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

—T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets

To describe a film as being “about memory” is almost as cliché as to say that it is “about time.” Few subjects are thought to be more suited to a temporal medium defined by its mechanical recording apparatus. Yet the films of the late Terence Davies are to my mind the rare works actually deserving of such a description. Whereas most films unfold resolutely in the present tense, Davies’ cinema plumbs all the contradictions that emerge when one considers the past in all its fullness—such as those paradoxes expressed, for instance, in the director’s favourite poems, Eliot’s Four Quartets

In “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Bazin famously spoke of the camera’s capacity to embalm and thereby preserve the present. In the cinema, Davies saw its additional capacity to recreate, and thereby redescribe, a past supposedly out of reach. What emerges in his sparse but powerful oeuvre is the conviction that the past is not sealed off or inaccessible, but something that persists in the present, giving form and shape to the very space in which we move and live and have our being. If memory is Davies’ great subject, it is because he explores not our grip on the past, but rather its grip on us.

Davies’ own memories are front and centre in the two films on which his reputation largely rests: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). Companion films of a sort, they are transparently drawn from his childhood years in ’50s Liverpool, where he grew up as the youngest of ten children born to working-class Catholic parents. As with any autobiographical works, the films are shot through with the specificity that comes only through lived experience: schoolyard taunts calling the adolescent Davies avatar a “fruit”; the terrifying abuses of his father; an unfathomably dull classroom lesson on types of erosion which, if not quite as scarring as the first two, evidently marked him all the same. What distinguishes both films, however, is not Davies’ presentation of particularity, but the particularity of his presentation: the stillness and enclosure of his tableaux-like compositions, their burnished lighting evocative of a lost photo album; and, especially, his stark de-dramatization of word and gesture, which negates any sense of a causal dramatic progression. 

Similarly notable is Davies’ radical decoupling of image and sound. It remains conventional to think of sound as secondary to image, as a mere extension of framed, visible space; after all, as Béla Balázs observed when rejecting the possibility of “sound framing,” sound does not have sides. In both Distant Voices and The Long Day Closes, however, one encounters just this paradoxical possibility. Liberated from its dependence on the image, sound in Davies’ films becomes primary, with locations framed around it rather than the other way around, allowing images to float free of their usual fixity in dramatic space. The result is works whose “present” is impossible to place—views from no-when.

Given their liberal use of popular music from the era, it is natural to connect both films to the tradition of the Hollywood musical, a genre Davies was no stranger to. Unlike in a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire vehicle, however, Davies’ use of music does not convey either a transformation of the dramatic action or the movement of a harmonized world; rather, like his bold appropriation of voiceover from Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1948) in The Long Day Closes, it serves to show how pop standards can form myriad relations far beyond their original contexts. In the communal scenes of Distant Voices especially, in which family, friends, and strangers gather to sing song after aching, joyous song, we get the sense of how sheer repetition can imbue familiar tunes with the weight of history—how “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Doris Day’s “At Sundown” can take on a tangible emotional life outside Easter Parade (1948) and Love Me or Leave Me (1955). One might think here of the Vinteuil Sonata in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but if popular music is uniquely suited to Davies’ explorations of what Proust called involuntary memory, it is because its sheer ubiquity leads it to form relations across an indiscriminate range of phenomena, however vulgar or inappropriate the conjunctions may seem. The great power of Distant Voices in fact derives from the violence of its transitions and the contradictoriness of its emotions, bound together by the music on that hieratic plane we call memory. 

By the time of Distant Voices, Davies was already 43. This, along with the undeniable accomplishment of that film, has led many to describe him as having come to cinema “fully formed,” as if his directorial style had simply emerged like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. To watch the three short films he made prior to Distant Voices, however, is to see the gradual formation of a distinct sensibility. Funded by an £8,500 award from the BFI Production Board, Children (1976), the first of what is now known as The Terence Davies Trilogy, follows a man named Robert Tucker at two different stages in his life, cutting between scenes of him as a young boy experiencing the first stirrings of his homosexuality, and as a closeted middle-aged man working an unsatisfying job. From the perspective of Davies’ later work, the film is most notable for its eschewal of a causal dramatic progression—and I use that term advisedly, for Davies’ construction refuses the temporal asymmetry that one might be inclined to impose on the film, resisting one’s impulse to fix the adult Tucker’s scenes as the stable present from which the childhood sequences would be merely reminiscence. Children is unique in that it is as much premonition as recollection. Although not yet marked by Davies’ singular use of music, it established something arguably even more central to his cinema: the principle that the tides of time flow backward as well as forward.

While the agonies of gay life are fully present in Children, it is the film that followed, Madonna and Child (1980), that established religion and homosexuality as the two great banes of Davies’ personal life. (As he later put it in his 2008 memoir cum essay film Of Time and the City, his adolescence was “caught between canon and criminal law.”) Just four years after Children, the film sees Davies foregrounding music to a daring degree, cutting even more liberally between temporally indeterminate events and locations, and making use of negative space and graphic matches to control the overtonal rhythms of his découpage. But it is in Death and Transfiguration (1983) that one finds Davies’ “mature” style in full flower. With even more concentrated force than the films that would follow, it depicts an entire life as a kaleidoscopic whirl of disjunctive images and sounds, most notably the alarming, unabated death rattle of an elderly man on his hospital deathbed, gasping for breath as the screen fades to white. It is a haunting distillation of a remark Deleuze attributes to Fellini, that “we are constructed in memory…simultaneously childhood, adolescence, old age and maturity.”

While the sui generis style of Davies’ early work does not lend itself to easy points of comparison, the more conventional genres in which he later worked—namely the literary adaptation and the biopic—arguably throw aspects of his style into even sharper relief. In the former group is his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, which, for Davies at least, was an opportunity to prove that he “could write a linear narrative in which you seed things that pay off.” Artistic sensibility is not so easily sloughed off, however, for pace his own assessment, what distinguishes Davies’ films is not so much that they are non-linear, but that they are non-successive—which is to say that, whatever their ostensible story material, they do not hew to the cause-effect relations of conventional clock time. 

This may seem a strange thing to say of what is, after all, a faithful adaptation of Wharton’s text starring Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart, a turn-of-the-century New York high-society woman who gradually descends into penury, social exile, and eventually death. Yet the film is far closer to the ceremonial spectacle of Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955) than the viperous drama of Scorsese’s Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence (1993). Dissolving fluidly from scene to scene, The House of Mirth unfolds like a scrolling panorama of enclosed, theatrical spectacle, an impression that only intensifies after Lily cuts herself off from the society world and the film takes on the uncanniness of an implied dream. The perfectly composed image of Lily on her deathbed at the conclusion creates the vivid impression that she has staged her own end—the tragic finale of a performance over which the curtain rose, unnoticed, some time ago.

The spectre of death likewise hangs over Davies’ other literary triumph, The Deep Blue Sea (2011), an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play that opens with Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer attempting to gas herself in her apartment. In typical Davies fashion, the camera then swirls into a heady haze of temporally indeterminate scenes, observing as Hester finds herself caught between a disastrous affair with a caddish air pilot (Tom Hiddleston) and a passionless marriage—or, in the terms of the title, between the devil and the deep blue sea. As in The House of Mirth, the overall impression is of a hieratic, ritualized recreation of an already completed drama. It is indicative of Davies’ approach that, despite a dazzlingly impressionistic homage to Celia Johnson’s near-suicide by moving train in Brief Encounter (1945), The Deep Blue Sea does not unfold as a conventional love triangle. Instead, what emerges over the course of the film is a vision of each figure grappling with the ghosts of a prior age. The impossible predicament of the title, then, is of a woman caught not so much between two men, but between a past she cannot escape and a future whose unknowability she cannot bear.

The fear of the future emerges even more acutely in what are now, fittingly, the two final features of Davies’ oeuvre: A Quiet Passion (2016) and Benediction (2021), artist-biopics of the poets Emily Dickinson and Siegfried Sassoon, respectively. Like his first two features, they are companion pieces of a sort, both portraits of artistic struggle set against the horrors of human conflict: the American Civil War in the former, World War I in the latter. Perhaps due to Davies’ own preoccupations and advancing age, however, both films come across as plangent meditations on the biopic form itself, centred on the question of how to construe the significance of art in the context of an artist’s life. How should one figure the contingencies of biography in relation to art’s aspiration to the eternal—to “something permanent, unchanging,” in Sassoon’s words, or to “something pressed from truth,” in Dickinson’s? In A Quiet Passion, this tension between art and life is memorably, movingly depicted in a sequence that imagines the future as a suitor mounting “the stairs at midnight, the looming man in the night,” disrupting Dickinson’s melancholy, isolated existence in her Amherst abode. In Benediction, by contrast, it’s expressed in the film’s overall structure, which gradually allows the lasting worth of Sassoon’s poetry to come apart from the circumstances of its creation and the person who made it.

At the time of her death, Dickinson was the author of only seven published poems, all anonymous. Sassoon was better off, having been appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1951—though as Davies tells it in Benediction, the elderly Sassoon remained bitter about his lack of recognition. The industrial preconditions of the cinema mean that anonymity of Dickinson’s sort is simply not the case for Davies, but it also means that we have likely seen the last of his contributions to the cinema. The only two films of his that even those familiar with his work are unlikely to have seen are But Why? (2021), a one-minute-long companion piece to Benediction made for the Venice Film Festival; and Passing Time (2023), produced for the Film Fest Gent’s 2×25 Project, in which a three-minute view of a bucolic Essex landscape, set to music by Uruguayan composer Florencia Di Concilio, is accompanied by Davies reading a poem of his own composition. (The latter film might well be reckoned as Davies’ version of Bruce Baillie’s 1966 masterpiece All My Life.) When Davies died, funding for his planned adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s posthumously published 1982 novel The Post Office Girl had already fallen through, joining such unrealized projects as a romantic comedy titled Mad about the Boy and an adaptation of He Who Hesitates, an entry in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct policier series.

But these are just the facts, the biographical contingencies of Davies’ life, told from the viewpoint that an obituary is meant to take: that of the artist making the art. As Davies’ own work makes clear, though, a radically different perspective is possible—one where relations of cause and effect, past and future, are not quite so fixed. This is the standpoint expressed in Dickinson’s famous lines: “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves— / And Immortality.” It is the one conveyed, too, in the final scene of Benediction, where an elderly Sassoon, sitting on a park bench, suddenly transforms into his younger self, reading a poem, “Disabled,” that his friend Wilfred Owen had handed him earlier when they were both confined in an army hospital. By this point in the film, Owen is long dead, having perished on the battlefield in 1918. Like Dickinson, Sassoon, and now Davies, he will make art no longer. But it is in the very certitude of his death that one catches a glimpse of that second point of view: no longer that of the artist making the art, but of the art making the artist. It is this perspective that allows us to peer beyond the contingencies of biography, outside the ordinary experience of time as an endless succession of nows, into a world where past and future are gathered. Indeed, it is perhaps only in the finality of death that we can begin to see artists no longer as persons simply living from moment to evanescent moment but rather, in Proust’s phrase, as “giants immersed in time.” Garcia Lawrence