From 'Still Lives' To 'Sunset Song', The Past Is Ever Present For Director Terence Davies Over the course of his 40-year career, Davies has only released six full-length feature films. His latest, Sunset Song, follows a young Scottish woman in the years before World War I.
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In Life And In Film, The Past Is Ever Present For Director Terence Davies

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In Life And In Film, The Past Is Ever Present For Director Terence Davies

In Life And In Film, The Past Is Ever Present For Director Terence Davies

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More than one critic has called Terence Davies Britain's greatest living film director. But over the course of his 40-year career, he's only released six full-length features and one documentary. His fans praise his use of light and shadow, music and silence and the way he digs into the past, especially his own, to tell emotionally charged stories of families and women. His latest is called "Sunset Song," and now it's opening in the U.S. NPR's Tom Cole has more.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Watching a Terence Davies film is like watching paintings come to life.

TERENCE DAVIES: But people who don't like my films say it's about as interesting as paint drying.

COLE: But Davis has plenty of defenders.

AGYNESS DEYN: It's definitely a different experience than modern filmmaking, which is so stimulating on every level.

COLE: Actress Agyness Deyn has been a fan since she saw Davies' breakout full-length feature about a troubled family called "Distant Voices, Still Lives."

DEYN: His filmmaking kind of opened up my eyes to different ways to tell stories and to communicate the intensity, which Terence does so well that he never - he leaves it up to the audience to kind of dub in what they imagine is going on to project onto it what it is for you. And then it evokes so much because you - you're actually a part of it.

COLE: Deyn plays the lead in "Sunset Song," Chris Guthrie, a young lover of books who must give up her dream of becoming a teacher to help her brutal father run the family farm after her mother's suicide in the years before World War I.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNSET SONG")

DEYN: (As Chris Guthrie) Something died in her heart and went down with mother to lie in Canady (ph) Courtyard. The child in her heart had died then. And Chris said the books and dreams died with it.

COLE: Agyness Deyn is a relative newcomer to films, but her face is one you've likely seen in fashion magazines. Terence Davies says there was no question about the former high-fashion model's acting ability.

DAVIES: The first morning I was going in to start auditioning for the film, Agyness was sitting at the top of the stairs. And I thought, God, she looks about 11. She came in. She was the first person, and she gave a wonderful audition. And I turned to my producers and said, we've found her.

COLE: Deyn had 18 months to research the role while Davies raised funds. And she was struck by the way two men - Davies and the author of the 1932 novel on which "Sunset Song" is based - were able to capture the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world of farming and war.

DEYN: Lewis Grassic Gibbon - when he wrote the book, people thought that he was a woman using a pseudonym because, back in the day, you know, they thought, how could a man write from the point of view of a woman in the specific way that he did? And also, Terence has the most wonderful view of women and their strength.

COLE: And that comes from Davies' childhood. He grew up in a working-class family of ten kids in Liverpool. He was terrorized by a violent father, much like the boy in "Distant Voices, Still Lives." Davies' father died when Terence was 6, and the filmmaker says the years that followed were the happiest in his life, in part because the women in his life took him to the movies.

DAVIES: My greatest influence was the American musical. That's what my sisters loved, and that's what I loved. They took me to see them, and I think you imbibe that like a kind of language.

COLE: So it's not surprising that music plays a part in all of his films, including "Sunset Song." And that, too, goes back to his childhood.

DAVIES: When I was growing up, there was a program on BBC Radio on a Sunday night called "Your Hundred Best Tunes," and it was about classical music. And they played this recording of "All In The April Evening" by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, and I've never forgotten it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL IN THE APRIL EVENING")

GLASGOW ORPHEUS CHOIR: (Singing) All in the April evening.

COLE: And when I was writing this, I thought that would be perfect for when they're all going to the church to get the grace of God and be in the light of God. And what do they get? They get a vicious sermon by the priest telling them to go out and kill people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUNSET SONG")

MARK BONNAR: (As Rev. Gibbon) Their king, which they call Kaiser, is the antichrist and a foul evil upon this earth which must be swept away by the righteous.

COLE: Filmmaker Terence Davies has long had a conflicted relationship with the church and the past.

COLE: I was brought up a Catholic, and I was a very devout one, too. But when I got into my teenage years and realized I was gay, I tried to live under the tenants of, to be pure in thought would indeed, and it is impossible. I prayed till my knees bled, and no succor came. And it left a huge hole in me.

COLE: The past is something the 70-year-old Davis has dealt with in all of his films, whether the struggles of others in other times, like the main character in "Sunset Song," or his own past and his abusive father.

DAVIES: I have a great deal of difficulty in forgiving things that have been done to you in the past that have damaged you. And in the end, you have to be able to forgive. Otherwise, you're always chained to the past.

COLE: Terence Davies has just finished his next movie, and it, too, is set in the past. It's about 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. I'm Tom Cole, NPR News.

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