November 10, 1945- Terence Davies
“I’m gay, I live alone and I’ve been celibate for 30 years.”
Davies, the terrifically talented film director/screenwriter seems to have a thing for stories of unfulfilling marriages set in the 1950s. Not surprising really, when you consider the harrowing story of his parents’ marriage. Davies:
“My mum had a terrible life because my father was a complete psychopath. She never once complained. She got on with it. That’s what you did. It moves me more than I can say. Where do you go with 10 kids? There were no women’s refuges. If you had a bad marriage, that was it. Women did not leave their husbands.”
He goes back to his childhood in the slightly fictionalized films Distant Voices, Still Lives(1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992).
I found his The Deep Blue Sea to be the best film of 2011. It’s an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play from 1952 that had already had a film treatment directed by Anatole Litvak in 1955, starring Vivien Leigh. The Deep Blue Sea is the story of what happens when a wife walks out on a marriage in the 1950s. Rattigan’s original production shocked audiences because the wife, Hester, played perfectly by Rachel Weisz in the film, does not leave her husband because he abuses her, but for something even more socially unacceptable back then. At 40-years-old, she discovers sex and it absolutely overwhelms her. She is married to a rather nice, cultured man, played by openly gay Simon Russell Beale. But he is also sexless and under the thumb to his mother. Davies:
“That combination of love and sexuality makes her say, I’ve got to go with this, I’ve got to follow my hormones. If only I’d done that in my life. But let’s not go there.”
He was asked to adapt this new version of The Deep Blue Sea by The Rattigan Trust to mark the 100th anniversary of the playwright’s birth. Rattigan, who was also gay, set the story in austere postwar Britain. Davies is especially gifted at depicting this period. Davies:
“Because I grew up in the 1950s, I know not only what it looked like, but what it felt like. It was drab, but what you had you kept well.”
Davies may say drab, but his The Deep Blue Sea is visually sumptuous. It reminds me of the heartbreaking Brief Encounter, David Lean’s lovely film from 1945 that was based on a play by Noël Coward. But, Brief Encounter’s wife, heartbreakingly played by Celia Johnson, returns to her dull marriage after her afternoon dalliance, while The Deep Blue Sea’s Hester has no way to go home. Her decision to follow her sexual desires proves disastrous. She tosses off her marriage when she falls for a sexy RAF pilot Freddie, played by my boo Tom Hiddleston. Hester tells her husband, a wealthy, sophisticated judge: “You can’t go back to living on the plains after you’ve discovered something so …” He says: “Primitive?” Hester replies: “Shall we say natural?”
Why did these two successful gay playwrights, Coward and Rattigan, choose to portray womens’ frustration with marriage? Davies:
“Perhaps they have a closer sensibility to women. I certainly know I feel that closeness, especially to northern women because they’re funny.”
The Deep Blue Sea may also have been a way for Rattigan to deal with the grief over his lover who killed himself. All the main characters want a different kind of love. None of them can reciprocate, and that’s the tragedy.
You also really have to see Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House Of Mirth (2000). I don’t understand why this film is so generally ignored. It has an unexpected intensity and a genuine passion in its adaptation of Wharton’s novel about love, cruelty and guile in early 20th century American High Society. Gillian Anderson is astonishing in the lead role. She is somehow able to convey a calibrated, technically accomplished range of emotions, from mischief to erotic rapture, from despair to self-loathing. Sometimes she is sleek and sunny and sometimes sick, puffy and bathed with cold sweat. The House Of Mirth has a remarkable ability to render a profound sense of past, like all of Davis’ films. It also has such a strong contemporary resonance that you nearly forget about the horses and corsets and lamplights.
Davies was born in Liverpool, with working-class Catholic parents. He was the youngest child in a family with ten children. Though raised Catholic by a deeply religious mother, he describes himself as an atheist.
He left home when he was 16-years-old and worked for the next decade as an office clerk before leaving Liverpool to study at Coventry Drama School. At school, he wrote a screenplay that eventually became his first autobiographical film, Children (1976). He found that he was well suited to making films and he transferred to National Film School where he made Madonna And Child (1980), the second story of Davies’ stand-in, Robert Tucker, about his years as that clerk in Liverpool. Three years later, he completed the trilogy with Death And Transfiguration (1983), where he imagines the circumstances of his own death. These three short films became known as The Terence Davies Trilogy, winning many awards when shown together.
Because of his gay sensibility and gay-themed screenplays, Davies’ has only eight more feature films so far.
One of them, Neon Bible, is also a literary adaptation, this one from a novel by gay American writer John Kennedy Toole, whose posthumously published novel A Confederacy Of Dunces (1980) won the Pulitzer Prize. Toole’s writing was rejected during his lifetime. After suffering from paranoia and depression due in part to these failures, he committed suicide in 1969. He was just 31-years-old.
In 2015, there was Sunset Song, his a visually stunning movie about a rural Scottish lass growing-up just before WW I. It is one of Davies’ finest works and a smart example of traditional techniques and modern sensibilities coming together to create a challenging and unique film. It feels as if it might have been made in the 1940s… if there had been no censorship. There is graphic sex and violence, and it doesn’t hold back from difficulties of living in that time and place. But there is so much empathy for the characters and such awareness of the social, political and historical forces at play during that era.
Last winter saw the release of A Quiet Passion about the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, starring out and proud gay actor Cynthia Nixon. It has Davies’ usual sumptuous photography, and respect and love for its subject.
Davies is currently finishing shooting a biopic of gay poet and WW I veteran Siegfried Sassoon titled Benediction, timed to be released a year from today, the centenary of the end of the that most terrible of wars. He is yet to make a film set later than 1955, and he joked:
“If I did a car chase, it would be two cars going very slowly.”
An adaptation of Richard McCann’s novel Mother Of Sorrows (2005), a gay man’s elegy to his mother, is set in the 1980s and begins filming next year.
Davies has written that his kind of elegant films are out of step with today’s culture, and that producers are reluctant to fund them even with the awards he has gathered during his 40 year career.
“I don’t know why people go to the cinema any more. People don’t run around with guns blowing things up in my films. If I did a car chase, it would be two cars going very, very slowly. I was once sent a gangster script and I said, ‘What do I know about gangsters? Or drugs?’ I take the odd junior aspirin when I’m not supposed to. But nothing stronger.”