Ranking the Terence Davies Films

Terence Davies is one of the great directors that I overlooked for far too long. I am not really sure why. He is clearly one of the vest best to ever do it.


8. The Neon Bible [1995]

While not a Davies film that made a huge impact on me overall, I was nonetheless intrigued by the ideas that it explored. The film accurately and effectively captured what it is like to be completely tied to where you came from in a manner that feels like you will be there forever. While the specific conditions that David here was born into, I could not relate to in any way. The overall feeling of what he experience is in some ways close to universal. There is a whole world outside the bubble that so many of us inevitably get born into. So much of that bubble can feel like an inescapable prison.


7. The Long Day Closes [1992]

I have a confession to make. There are two distinct genres of cinema that I detest with all of my heart. The first one is the classic “a man and their horse” bullshit. Enough. I cannot if it’s worse that the genre this film from Davies falls into: “a director as a young boy who likes movies.” Like, can the mechanics of a movie made by a master like Davies be great? Of course! Many of the classic themes explored and style choices made are consistent with what make Davies one of the best ever to do it. I just cannot care about it though in any meaningful way. That one dude’s Peter Lorre impression makes the film automatically better than The Neon Bible though!


6. A Quiet Passion [2016]

Much like Davies later did with BenedictionA Quiet Passion shows the director’s ability to take what on the surface is a mere biopic but turn it into genuine art to capture the spirit of a real-life person. Passion is not a Wikipedia entry on the life of a famous person. It instead captures the inner life of Emily Dickinson and speaks to what it can be like to be a free-thinking woman who does not succumb to the status quo that is pushed so hard on all of us. Instead of giving us a blow-by-blow of Dickinson’s life, Davies crafts the film in a way that makes it feel like a series of vignettes where the audience has to connect the dots a lot or imagine what happened the in-between moments.


5. Benediction [2021]

Benediction feels unavoidably connected to Sunset Song. The big thread connecting them is the exploration of the contrast between the beauty of humanity with the world we have built for ourselves. We are capable of all this passion, art, and true beauty. But the worldly and inner destruction we commit to ourselves just seems hopelessly inexhaustible.  Whereas Song focused much of the beauty on the imagery of the world, Benediction manages to use the traditional biopic structure (but without any of the trappings) to find the beauty in a human being.


4. Sunset Song [2015]

This was my first Terrence Davies film. It made quite the impression. What struck me about it above all was the beauty of the film. It just simply was gorgeous to look at, especially any time we got a glimpse of the family farmland or the surrounding hills. The beauty of the world contrasts greatly with the experience that Chris has with her life. After suffering under the yoke of an abusive father (who rapes his wife into repeated forced pregnancies), Chris seems to finally escape that horror and create a better world for herself with her doting husband. Only for The Great War to come and destroy him in heart and mind, all the while the setting remains looking angelic on the surface. That contrast is everything to this movie. We barely even have to imagine a better world – it is staring at us right in the face. Yet we find ways to destroy and torture all of us.


3. The House of Mirth [2000]

A girl must, and a man, if he chooses…

Edith Wharton is such a natural fit for Terence Davies, and Lily Bart is a classic literary protagonist. Yes, she has to confront unfair society expectations regarding gender roles but she also has such a self-destructive streak. The tension between those two ideas carries the film and makes it absolutely captivating. Lily is simultaneously set up to fail and then somehow always compounds the problem. She was born into a situation that did not prepare her to not conform to her immediate surroundings. She then refuses to disentangle herself from her extremely gross social circle. The combination of the two leads Lily on a tragic trajectory downward in life from where she came from which there is no escape due to the failures of the world and of herself. Incredible work by Davies and Gillian Anderson here.


2. Distant Voices, Still Lives [1988]

The debut, feature-length film from Terence Davies is just a masterpiece and absolutely captures all the best qualities of the master. Much like Terrence Malick (what is it with guys named Ter(r)ence and making classics?), Davies is truly amazing at making you FEEL what it is to be alive and to live with memories of your past as you are experiencing your present. In this case, Davies follows a working class British family in two significant periods of their lives. When the children are younger and their father is the dominant force of their lives. Then when the children are grown up, and the father – long dead, hangs over them like a ghost. The film is simply beautiful and makes for a stunning debut.


1. The Deep Blue Sea [2011]

“Beware of passion…it always leads to something ugly…[replace passion] with a guarded enthusiasm. It’s much safer.”

The Deep Blue Sea is rather easily my favorite Terence Davies film. While all of his films speak to the human condition and experience and feel true to life, Blue Sea hit me deep in my soul on a level beyond all the rest. The film captures how, when it comes to partnerships, relationships, and love, we are all set up so miserably to fail.

Rachel Weisz was clearly born into believing that happiness would be found by marrying a rich, respected, and successful husband. She learned eventually that being married to a boring, old man who has already lived a live is thoroughly unsatisfying, and she ends up in a passionate affair with a young WWII vet (Hiddleston). This latter relationship of course ends in disaster because neither Hiddleston nor Weisz really know how to go about making a genuine partnership that was initially based on attraction.

The film showcases the false dichotomy between passion and practicality that we get sold as our choices in life (and not just in relationships). No sense of a better world is ever explained to us as being something possible. And when it comes to relationships, no one ever teaches us how to do it. So much of the functioning of the world is based on the premise that almost everyone is gonna pair up with another another human for the long haul, and yet we never know how to go about doing just that because no one shows us.

The beauty and tragedy of being alive is best captured when Weisz and Hiddleston’s attempt as a relationship is falling apart catastrophically. Weisz’s old husband comes back and it seems like an opening for Weisz and the old man to reconcile. Surely, their steady, passionless life together is preferable to the chaos Weisz is experiencing with Hiddleston. Weisz, of course, says no to her old husband. If nothing else, she recognizes that once she knows what is possible, she cannot settle for less. Even if there is no hope for specifically her and Hiddleston going forward.


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