Terence Davies is a legend. In his four-decade career, Davies—who was raised in Liverpool in a devout working-class Roman Catholic family, the youngest of ten—has created a body of work like no one else, one that examines memory, family, and place through often startling beauty.
Davies abandoned religion as a teenager, and often grapples with his complicated relationship to the church, tragedy, and sexuality in his movies; he is outright critical of religion.
But his films (including Of Time and the City, The Long Day Closes, and Distant Voices, Still Lives) exude a spiritual sensibility and palpable longing that’s nearly unmatched in contemporary cinema. His camera’s careful attention to small things, like the light streaming through a window or a flickering candle, imbues everyday life with something like holiness.
There’s often large gaps between Davies’s films, due to funding. But this year, he has two out at once. Sunset Song, out in theaters this weekend, is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel about a young Scottish woman, Chris Guthrie. Chris’s life is marked by both great tragedy and beauty, and critics (including this one) are hailing it as a masterpiece. A Quiet Passion, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and is still awaiting a U.S. release date, traces the life of Emily Dickinson and her struggles with her faith and her art. (Read our report from the film’s premiere.)
Davies, who speaks warmly and almost musically, spoke with me for forty-five minutes about truth-telling in cinema, shooting light and potatoes, religion, spirituality, and the rich inner life of Emily Dickinson. (He also quoted poetry.) What follows was edited for length and clarity.
Christianity Today: In both Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion, the female protagonists have overtly authoritarian, almost sadistic religious figures hovering over them at the beginning—the father on the one hand in the schoolmarm on the other. Did that similarity strike you at all when you started making the films?
Terence Davies: No. I think I was unconscious. Influences that are unconscious are much more interesting . . . I really did identify with [Dickinson] and I longed for her to be happy. She's yearning for something that will never come. It's heartbreaking, that. She admits, she says, "I've become embittered." That's what happened. What do you do when you actually become the very thing that you dread? Really, when push comes to shove, she's not turned bitter, really.
There's something greater at work there. She's embittered for that moment, but there's something much stronger, and much more spiritual, and much more admirable about her. She cares for other people. She does care about the truth and that.
Did you see that same sensibility in Chris Guthrie as well?
Yes. She's only 14 when [Sunset Song] begins and she's only 21 when it ends. The joy of just being alive, and her friend saying, "Only fools love being alive," which is an extraordinary thing to say. The love of being in the moment, of every moment seeming like a kind of extra thing. Of course, that doesn't exactly doesn't last. It eventually is killed by life. Hopefully you can retain something of that ecstasy as you get older and older. I love the quiet love between her and her brother. It's so quiet. It's so touching. I love that. I just love that.
You often shoot the interiors of houses, staircases, light, simple furnishings, plates of food. What’s so interesting about this to you?