Settle down at Cinematheque this week with Distant Voices, Still Lives
DISTANT VOICES: THE FILMS OF TERENCE DAVIES (Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West), from Friday (January 23) to February 7. 416-968-FILM. Rating: NNNN
Terence Davies makes sombre, sober films. He frames his guarded characters in precise, formal compositions, and holds his camera on them until they seem ready to crumble under its gaze. And we are trapped in his movies with him.
Time moves slowly in Davies's films. Going over the notes for Cinematheque's comprehensive retrospective of his work, which is tied to an upcoming limited run of his marvellous new documentary, Of Time And The City, I was shocked to note that the longest of his early films runs just 92 minutes. The Long Day Closes; The Neon Bible; Distant Voices, Still Lives - I remember them as epics. So much for relying on memory.
Of course, Davies's best films are all about memory - specifically, his own. The short films in which he perfected his directorial style, collected here as The Terence Davies Trilogy (February 7, 7 pm), let him explore his adolescence through an impressionistic lens, centring on the conflict of his bred-in-the-bone Catholicism and nascent homosexuality.
His feature debut, 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives (Monday, January 26, 7 pm), essentially recreates his origins onscreen, slipping backwards and forwards between wartime Liverpool and the quieter but no less charged 1950s - all of it forever dominated by a glowering, volatile father played with eerie confidence by Pete Postlethwaite. It's the perfect distillation of Davies's talent; he reproduces his memories with such authenticity that his emotions seem to hover on the other side of the screen.
Gillian Anderson in House of Mirth
Cinematheque has secured new 35mm prints for Distant Voices and its spiritual sequel, 1992's The Long Day Closes (January 29, 7 pm), which reconsiders the sexual awakening explored in the Trilogy from a more realistic angle. Here, Davies's surrogate is 11-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack), who uses the local movie palace as an escape from his unhappy life, but can't quite avoid the creeping realization that he is very different from everyone else around him.
Davies's sole wrong step came in 1995 with The Neon Bible (Friday, January 23, 8:30 pm), an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's novel about a lonely boy (played at different ages by Drake Bell and Jacob Tierney) who finds solace in his bond with an eccentric aunt (Gena Rowlands). The story seems suited to Davies's strengths - the watchful youngster, the tangled family dynamic, the oppressive world beyond the front door - but the Southern Gothic setting eludes him like a foreign accent, and he never finds a way to unify the clashing styles of his American cast.
It took a while for Davies to recover from The Neon Bible; he didn't make another movie until his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth (Saturday, January 24, 4 pm). Produced at the apex of the British literary-drama wave, it's a fascinating marriage of authorial styles, with Davies and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin creating a series of ornate social tableaux in which Wharton's calculating Lily Bart - played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson - finds herself inescapably fixed.
Well-received critically, The House Of Mirth failed to catch on with either audiences or certain awards bodies. Davies disappeared from the scene for eight more years, returning last spring with Of Time And The City (Friday and Saturday, January 23 and 24, 7 pm; Sunday, January 25, 3 pm; and at the Bloor Cinema, February 1-4), his gorgeous, elegiac documentary about postwar Liverpool. Gliding through old photographs and archival footage, Davies narrates the story of his young life with growling contempt for the obstacles placed in his way by class and religion. The film is as much about the development of his personal landscape as his literal one. It's only 77 minutes long, but it spans decades. And it's enthralling.
Film-geek note: the North American DVD of The House Of Mirth was accidentally mastered from a PAL source, which has the result of speeding up the film by 4 per cent. So if the movie seems a little slower in the theatrical screening - well, it is. But it's supposed to be.