Terence Davies, 77, Dies; Filmmaker Mined Literature and His Own Life

Terence Davies, a British screenwriter and director known for his poetic, intensely personal films like “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and literary adaptations like “The House of Mirth,” died on Saturday at his home in the village of Mistley, Essex, on the southwest coast of England. He was 77.

His manager, John Taylor, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause, saying only that Mr. Davies had died after “a short illness.”

An obituary from the British Film Institute said, “No one made movies like Davies, who precisely sculpted out of a subjective past, creating films that glided on waves of contemplation and observation.”

The very specific “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) starred Pete Postlethwaite as a violently abusive Liverpool father who terrorizes his wife and children. When the film was rereleased in 2018, The Guardian called it the director’s “early autobiographical masterpiece” and declared it “as gripping as any thriller.”

When critics referred to Mr. Davies’s film dramas as musicals, they were only half joking. Songs are sung or heard in his movies just as they are in real life — at bars, at celebrations, at church and on the radio.

In “Distant Voices,” the townspeople and their children sing “Beer Barrel Polka” in a bomb shelter to distract themselves from the horrors of World War II. Audiences hear “If You Knew Susie” at a wedding reception, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” while Mr. Postlethwaite takes a curry comb to a horse and “Taking a Chance on Love” issuing from a radio in the background even during the most brutal scenes.

The film won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Mr. Davies directing Gillian Anderson on the set of “The House of Mirth,” which was released in 2000. “Brilliantly adapted,” The Village Voice said.Credit…Sony Pictures Classics/Everett Collection

“The House of Mirth” (2000), based on Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, starred Gillian Anderson as the doomed heroine, Lily Bart. Writing in The Village Voice, J. Hoberman called the film “brilliantly adapted” and Ms. Anderson’s performance “unexpectedly stunning.”

Stephen Holden of The New York Times found the film “funereally gloomy,” but he had to admit, he wrote, that the story was “so gripping, it almost doesn’t matter how it’s couched.” And The San Francisco Chronicle praised it as “such a mesmerizing downer.” For all that, it grossed only $5 million worldwide (a little more than $9 million in today’s currency).

The industry eventually forgave him for his commercial limitations and continued to back his films, including “The Deep Blue Sea” (2011), starring Rachel Weisz, which was based on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play about a judge’s wife having an emotionally destructive affair.

It was not a blockbuster either, but critics were generally admiring. A review in New York magazine noted Mr. Davies’s “ability to blend the particular with the iconic, to turn ordinary moments into something almost mythical.”

Terence Davies was born on Nov. 10, 1945, in Liverpool, England, the youngest of 10 children in a working-class family.

When Terence was 7, his father died of cancer. He grew up in his mother’s Roman Catholic faith but developed doubts and rejected religion completely when he was 22.

“Then I realized it’s a lie,” he recalled in an interview with The New Yorker in 2017. “Men in frocks — nothing else.”

He left school at 15 and worked as a shipping clerk and a bookkeeper. More than a decade later, he changed course and enrolled in a drama school in Coventry, more than 100 miles south of Liverpool, near Birmingham.

A scene from “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” Mr. Davies’s 1988 portrait of a working-class English family. From left, Freda Dowie, Dean Williams, Angela Walsh and Lorraine Ashbourne.Credit…Mary Evans/BFI/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

He was still a student when he began work on his first short film, “Children” (1976), later edited into “The Terence Davies Trilogy” (1983).

The next half-century or so brought Mr. Davies awards, film festival attention and a prestigious list of credits.

He did “The Long Day Closes” (1992), a young gay man’s battle with the church, his family and his own guilt; “The Neon Bible” (1995), starring Gena Rowlands, based on John Kennedy Toole’s novel, set in the American South; the documentary “Of Time and the City” (2008), a history of and reflection on his hometown, Liverpool (a “lovely, astringent film,” A.O. Scott wrote in The Times); and “Sunset Song” (2015), starring Agyness Deyn, based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel about coming of age in early 1900s Scotland.

Finally, Mr. Davies, who always said that he was drawn to the past, began to explore the lives of the poets themselves.

He made “A Quiet Passion” (2016), in which Cynthia Nixon portrays Emily Dickinson, the reclusive 19th-century American poet. The Times’s critic found that Mr. Davies possessed “a poetic sensibility perfectly suited to his subject and a deep, idiosyncratic intuition about what might have made her tick.”

His last film was “Benediction” (2021), a drama about the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. The New Yorker called it “an energizing and inspiring movie about the vanity of existence itself.“

Mr. Davies, who was gay and never married, leaves no known survivors and had lived alone since 1980. He had tried the gay dating scene, he said, and dismissed it for, among other reasons, what he called its devotion to narcissism.

Lamenting the age of complete license — in the arts as well as in daily life, he told L.A. Weekly in 2012: “The first thing that goes is subtlety. The first thing that goes is any kind of restraint or even wit sometimes. I don’t know how to deal with that in the modern world.”

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