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Life And Truth: Director Terence Davies Interviewed
Tim Cooke , December 5th, 2015 10:25

Tim Cooke sits down with British director Terence Davies to talk about his latest film, the Agyness Deyn starring Sunset Song

British auteur Terence Davies has fashioned an illustrious career out of experience and memory. From 1983’s The Terence Davies Trilogy – his “apprentice work” – to 2008’s ecstatic ode-to-Liverpool Of Time And The City, much of his output has felt like a raid on his own past. Familiar themes and ideas have evolved and recurred throughout: alienation, patriarchal oppression, mothers’ love, Catholicism, for example.

Though frequently drawn from actuality, his material is typically delivered with an experimental twist. He plays with style and narrative and has tended to resist the gritty, straightforward realism associated with many of his contemporaries, pointing instead to the subjective and manipulated nature of truth in film.

In between his autobiographical work, Davies seems to have developed a penchant for adapting great literature. He took on John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible in 1995, before achieving widespread acclaim for his faithful version of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 2000. A more idiosyncratic interpretation of Terrence Rattigan’s play Deep Blue Sea came in 2012.

His latest film, Sunset Song, is a stunning realisation of the 1932 novel by Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It’s taken him 15 years to bring it to life.

“It’s a great novel and it’s a wonderful story,” Davies explains. “It’s an intimate epic that I first saw on television in 1971. It was on for six weeks, each Sunday, and I loved the series. I didn’t know anything about Gibbon, so I went out and bought the book and have loved it ever since.”

Set within a fictional farming community in the Mearns – now Aberdeenshire – on the cusp of the Great War, the story follows Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a bright young woman struggling against her father’s destructive rule. As time passes and she begins to build her own life on the harsh land, love and happiness find a way in, but the world’s troubles soon arrive at her door. The project sees Davies working to one of his most conventional narrative lines to date.

“The content always dictates the form,” he says. “It will tell you how it wants to be written – it just does. You have to listen to it. I just try and listen to what I feel, what I see and what I hear in my mind when I’ve read something. You have to filter it through your own psyche and it has to come out refracted, if you like, and that’s what makes it interesting.”

While Sunset Song is more traditionally arranged than his fragmented memory films, his stylistic flourish persists, thriving particularly well on the pastoral Scottish landscape. Golden-hour shots and rippling wheat fields call to mind Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979), and a faultless depiction of the changing seasons gives the environment a sublime, limitless quality.

Also present is Davies’s long-term, somewhat impressionistic fascination with open doors and windows. “For some reason they – and empty stairways – have an enormous hold on me,” he says. “I suppose I was influenced by Vermeer. I don’t know what it is, but there is just something about open doors and empty rooms that I find incredibly moving.”

It could be the connotations of confinement and escape. His films’ protagonists, almost without exception, are to some extent trapped: by suffocating families, by society, by sexual shame. His only novel, 1984’s devastating Hallelujah Now, is about a working-class man from Liverpool trying to come to terms with being gay against a backdrop of Catholicism and intolerance.

Music, too, runs throughout Davies’s canon. As well as offering escape, it brings people together. In Sunset Song, he says, it’s a narrative device. He explains that he can’t play himself, but loves to hear those who can: “It gives everything such life and truth, and I do find it wonderful and very powerful in films. I grew up with the American musicals – my very first film, at seven, was Singing In The Rain.”

Despite the often-bleak substance, his work always lifts something good from the wreckage. With Sunset Song, it’s Chris’s connection to the land, and her resilience – her will to persevere and forgive. Former-model Deyn’s superb performance is at once crushing and invigorating; it inspires a deep sense of loss, or nostalgia, for a time and a place that were never ours to begin with – a familiar trick of Davies’s.

Speaking about casting Deyn, he says: “Look, it was very, very simple really. I didn’t know she was a model because I know nothing about that part of popular culture. She was the first person in on the Monday morning. She did the audition and I just said to my producers: ‘We’ve found her’. You can just tell. I just get a feeling in my stomach and it’s as vague as that I’m afraid.”

With such promise, it’s reasonable to suggest a second collaboration could be on the cards, especially considering that Sunset Song is the first part of a trilogy, A Scots Quair. “But,” Davies says, “I tend not to work with people a second time. It’s just that what you don’t want is them starting to act in a Terence Davies way, because that would actually kill their careers stone dead.”

He goes on to explain that, in fact, he deliberately didn’t read the other books, for fear of not finding the money to make films of them – an issue he’s grown familiar with over the years: despite commercial success with ...Mirth in 2000, he struggled soon after to get funding for Sunset Song and found himself in the wilderness for nearly a decade, before Of Time And The City reconfirmed his importance. “I want to stop before I’m really disappointed,” he says.

While Davies has excelled in his role on the fringes – with many critics justifiably describing him as Britain’s greatest living auteur – there is no doubt that Sunset Song, like The House of Mirth, will endear him to a more mainstream audience. He seems, in later life, to be bridging a gap.

He’s not so sure: “If I compare myself say to Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Peter Greenaway, Steve McQueen, they’ve won all the great prizes; their works have done very, very well at the box office and I can’t compete with them on any of those bases. It would be nice to be a household name, you know, like Dettol, but I don’t think it’ll happen now that I’m 70.”

The film has received a warm response from critics prior to its full release and went down a storm in Aberdeen, which Davies admits he was “very worried about” beforehand. But once his films are done and out there, in a poetic, death-of-the-author kind of way, he turns to the next piece – in this case, an Emily Dickenson biopic – and almost relinquishes ownership. It’s as if the work is a gift.

“It’s odd because once the film’s finished and gone to show print I don’t think it’s got anything to do with me,” he says. “It’s a most peculiar feeling – I just think: ‘Oh, that’s rather clever, I wonder what I was taking that day.’”

Sunset Song is in cinemas now