‘Terence Davies’ Is a Perceptive Exploration Into the Filmmaker’s Work

An illuminating, queer theory-influenced study of the work of one of Britain's most distinctive filmmakers.

Poetic, allusive, intensely personal, highly stylized, and as rich aurally as visually, the films of Terence Davies look, sound and feel quite unlike the work of any other contemporary director. Davies started out by making movies that were rooted deeply in the pleasures and pains of his own working-class, post-war Liverpool background: the gruelling compendium of black-and-white shorts known collectively as the Trilogy (1976-1983) and the by turns rapturous and devastating Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) were the results.

Memory films that, in the case of the final part of the Trilogy, also project imaginatively into a very bleak future, these are works that operate so completely to the beat of their own idiosyncratic structures, emotional rhythms and time signatures that one may have felt that Davies would have come entirely unstuck when approaching material not drawn from his own intimate experiences. However, even when Davies has moved away from autobiography and into literary adaptation, the films have still borne the unmistakable stamp of the director’s sensibility, both for better (his underrated adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible [1995] and his exquisite rendering of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth [2000]) and for worse (his rather botched take on Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea [2011]).

All of the above makes Davies’ work a challenge to write about. But in his valuable new study of the filmmaker, the latest addition to the University of Illinois Press’s always-interesting Contemporary Film Directors series, Michael Koresky succeeds in doing justice to the complexity and the singularity of Davies’s output.

Indeed, Koresky’s text feels long overdue, as there hasn’t been an English-language study of Davies’ work since Wendy Everett’s excellent book on the director, which was published a full ten years ago. The frustrating vagaries of film financing have meant that Davies hasn’t been able to produce a great deal of work during that period, delivering only the Liverpool essay film Of Time and the City (2008) and The Deep Blue Sea in the interim, though his long-in-development Sunset Song has now been completed. But despite the relative paucity of its subject’s output in the years between this and Everett’s study, Koresky’s text still feels vital, offering many fresh insights, while also building on Everett’s analysis in rewarding ways.

Koresky sees Davies’ output as one marked by contradiction, paradox, opposition and ambivalence, defining his films as “puzzling works that skirt the lines between autobiography and fantasy, reality and fiction, radicalism and conservatism” (p.8). Embracing an achronological approach to better evoke the work of a director who has, for the most part, disdained linear storytelling, Koresky structures the text not in chapters but rather in extended sections whose very titles nicely establish the contradictions that he presents as central to Davies’ work in terms of form, content and theme: ‘The Fiction of Autobiography,’ ‘The Elation of Melancholy,’ ‘The Radical Traditional’ and ‘The Fixity of Forward Motion.’

As these titles indicate, Davies’ cinema is, according to Koresky, one characterised by liminality. The text’s structure therefore allows the critic to make his own fluid movements between Davies’ films as he elaborates and elucidates connections between them, exploring, for example, the status of “outsider women” in Davies’s literary adaptations in one section and the effect of two pivotal “bridging” sequences in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The House of Mirth in another.

In order to productively explore the stylistic and thematic in-betweenness that he establishes as central to his subject, the principal theoretical lens that Koresky mobilises to approach Davies’ work is “queerness.” Indeed, the critic states frankly that part of the aim of his book is to “recoup [the director] as a queer auteur” (p.110). That Davies has tended not to be discussed in such terms despite the at times openly homoerotic content of his work is attributable to several factors, Koresky contends.

The primary one is the director’s own attitude to his sexuality: his assertion, frequently repeated in interviews, that “being gay ruined my life”. As such, Davies’ movies present their characters’ sexual identities in terms of guilt, shame and trauma, entirely eschewing the rhetoric of pride and positivity that tends to define the films celebrated as “New Queer Cinema” (where Davies has thus far merited nary a mention). As Koresky puts it: “Davies’ films and his persona are hopelessly out of step with a scholarship and politics of queerness that is largely driven by notions of empowerment” (p.10).

And yet, as Koresky persuasively argues, it is precisely that unfashionable perspective which makes Davies so valuable and vital as a queer auteur, producing films that emerge from the director’s own particular experience of marginalization rather than a slavish adherence to politically correct ideology. “[R]arely,” Koresky writes, “has a gay feature filmmaker so completely and insistently plumbed the depths of his own embattled psyche while placing it in a concrete sociopolitical framework” (p.11).

Moreover, “queerness” operates in Davies’ work far beyond overt representations of gay desire. Rather, as Koresky shows, it’s evident at every aspect of the director’s approach and aesthetics, from his distinctive employment of music and other pop culture fragments to his films’ management of time. Occasionally, Koresky employs the term “queer” so liberally that he risks overstating his case. But for the most part his approach yields productive, sometimes provocative analyses.

His appraisal of the director’s politics brilliantly clarifies the vexed question of the “radical conservatism” of Davies’ films, and especially strong is the concluding section on “queer temporality” which, aided by a judicious dash of Deleuze, beautifully illuminates the films’ complicated relationship to nostalgia, their peculiar mix of the fluid and the static, and the position of their characters “outside the rhythms and punctuations of normal cinematic narratives and heteronormative experience” (p.110).

Koresky incorporates some astute close reading of specific sequences, including an appropriately extended focus on the notorious “carpet shot” in The Long Day Closes, which the critic approaches as emblematic, with its “luxurious lavishing of attention … on an object that another film might consider visual debris” (p.88). Koresky is also particularly good at conveying the emotional and sensual experience of Davies’ films: how they feel and move, and how their recourse to quotation and juxtaposition works on the viewer, inspiring contradictory feelings of both joy and sadness.

As usual in this series, the volume concludes with an interview with the filmmaker. Davies’ tendency to rehash favoured anecdotes and gags means that some of the responses here are familiar. But Koresky’s intelligent, tactful questions do yield some illuminating answers, not least on the director’s approach to filming violence.

A flaw in Terence Davies is that Koresky’s admiration for his subject is sometimes a little too evident: he’s perhaps over-eager to accept without critique some of Davies’ more problematic assertions about his own work, and to embrace without ever really deconstructing the director’s carefully constructed persona. But in perceptively exploring Davies’ movies via their “contradictory queer natures” (p.7) Koresky’s study certainly succeeds in sending viewers back to these distinctive films with many new insights — and with new questions, too.

RATING 8 / 10
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