Terence Davies is haunted by the Fall. The veteran English filmmaker, whose new film, Benediction, is currently in theaters, has been a staunch atheist for most of his seventy-six years, but disappointment is everywhere in his filmography: disappointment with parents and lovers, siblings and spouses, art and politics, the Church and the world. Since the late 1970s, he has gradually perfected an art of loss and dashed expectations, where life is rarely as good as his characters feel it ought to be. Thank God that it is also beautiful.
Davies was born in 1945 to a devout working-class Catholic family in Liverpool. He left school at sixteen and the Church at twenty-two. He worked for ten years as a shipping clerk before attending a series of drama and film schools where he produced the three short films now called the Terence Davies Trilogy (currently streaming, along with six of his features, on the Criterion Channel). Shot on grainy black-and-white stock, the trilogy charts the story of Davies stand-in Robert Tucker as he progresses from a Catholic-schooled youth to a repressed middle age to, in the final installment, the director’s own imagined death. Each film slips freely between different times and places, juxtaposing Tucker’s life at various stages. In Death and Transfiguration, his own decrepitude is intercut with memories of his mother’s death; and in Madonna and Child, Davies, who is gay, charts a growing discomfort with the strictures of religion alongside an equal—and perhaps more painful—inability to express his sexuality in any of the forms available to him.
Davies adored his mother and feared his father, a violent martinet who died of cancer when the director was seven years old. His early films are filled with petty tyrants: fathers and husbands, bullies and schoolmasters, priests and doctors—all working to put his characters in their proper place. Distant Voices, Still Lives, his debut feature, tells the story of a working-class Liverpool family much like Davies’s own (though with three children rather than ten). The film has a rhapsodic quality, cutting freely between weddings and baby showers and childhood Christmases. Long sections are devoted to crowds singing together, expressing through song what they could never plainly say. Yet it returns again and again to scenes of primal violence, husbands beating wives and boys breaking windows and the many torments the father (played by Pete Postlethwaite) visits upon wife and children and neighborhood before dying, miserably, in the hospital.
In a recent interview, Davies described himself as “sick with happiness” during the four years following his own father’s death, before he went to boarding school and gained a whole new set of tormentors. This interval of bliss is portrayed in my favorite of his films, 1992’s The Long Day Closes. He assembles its narrative through a kind of collage, stitching together the experiences of a lonely young boy with minimal exposition, using associative cuts to guide the viewer from image to image.
The film leaps along from memory to memory: schooldays and churchgoing and the many hours spent with his mother, but especially the time he spent at the movies. Davies sets the film to a soundtrack of classical music, film scores, and dialogue from the movies of the 1950s that emphasize the movie-ness of what we’re watching, just as the film’s sets and artificial lighting seem to produce a recreation, rather than an ordinary depiction. It’s like a child’s idea of a film about childhood, and it operates like no other film I’ve seen. Yet even this seeming paradise comes with a dark tint, for boarding school is just around the corner, and the idyll of youth will soon be banished, replaced by the wilderness of adulthood.