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In Appreciation: Terence Davies

Terence Davies was once called “the keeper of British cinema.” He kept it well. It felt like watching a film by Terence Davies was to spend time with Terence Davies. More than most filmmakers, he poured himself into his work, using his craft to reflect his memories and dreams. His films are often portrayed as stuffy, but they were more often the exact opposite to those willing to engage with them, more full of life in a single scene than some filmmakers pull off in their entire careers. His loss this week after a short illness at the age of 77 is a major blow to the international film scene, the exit of a true titan of empathetic filmmaking, one of the best to ever do it.

Born in Liverpool in 1945 to a family of 10 children (three wouldn’t survive infancy, imbuing a sense of loss in the man from a young age), Davies came from a working-class and deeply Catholic background, two elements that he would incorporate into films like “The Long Day Closes,” “Distant Voice, Still Lives,” “The Neon Bible,” and more. Davies reportedly discarded the deeply religious foundation of his upbringing and became an atheist when he was 22, but he often seemed to be interrogating his own history in his filmmaking with characters uncertain about or even betrayed by blind faith. With a father who died when he was only seven, he also emphasized maternal figures in his work, creating remarkable roles for actresses like Gena Rowlands, Gillian Anderson, Rachel Weisz, and Cynthia Nixon. Again, even in the films that Davies made from someone else’s source material like “A Quiet Passion,” “The Deep Blue Sea” and “Sunset Song,” it felt like he wanted to tell you something about himself with the decisions he made behind the camera.

His career started at Coventry Drama School, where he made a short film titled “Children,” before moving on to the National Film School. From the beginning, Davies was using film to express his own feelings, examining childhood and the Catholic guilt over his homosexuality in the short film. He completed a trilogy in the early ‘80s with that first short in “Madonna and Child” and “Death and Transfiguration.” They have been screened as a full piece called “The Terence Davies Trilogy,” and can currently be viewed on The Criterion Channel, a great introduction to Davies’ themes.

Terence Davies exploded on the film scene with two deeply autobiographical films in 1988’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and 1992’s “The Long Day Closes.” Critics raved about these films set in Liverpool in the ‘40s and ‘50s, movies that combined the lyrical and the personal in a way that felt alive and connected to a long tradition of filmmaking. Davies was a purist in terms of film as entertainment—his Sight & Sound ballot last year is a joyous delight that hints at that passion about the history of the form—and one can see how much he loves the art of filmmaking in these two breakthrough projects. They were massive critical hits with “Distant Voices” landing in the top ten of a Sight & Sound list in 2002 of the best films of the previous quarter-century.

“The Long Day Closes” is Davies’ masterpiece, a movie that can transport any viewer willing to give themselves over to it. It’s the opposite of the current half-watched film culture in that it only really works if you devote yourself to it, becoming more of a conversation between an artist and a viewer than a passive piece of content. Set in the mid-’50s, it’s a story of a 12-year-old boy struggling with faith, school, and family, a tale of a young person trying to find their identity that feels poetic and grounded in memory at the same time. It’s both carefully calibrated in its filmmaking choices and something that feels like it’s emerging organically from its creator at the same time, blending both heart and mind in one frame. It’s my #1 of 1992 and one of my last cuts from my Sight & Sound list of the best ever. Look at the choices here in this clip that intertwines overhead shots of cinema, faith, and school. It’s breathtaking.