People cry a lot in Terence Davies’ movies, but the English director‘s no fan of gelatin teardrops running prettily down actors’ cheeks. He goes for thunderous crying jags, pushing his camera right into his performers‘ faces as they’re racked by seismic sobs. It‘s one of his grimmer trademarks, like realistic vomiting in Ingmar Bergman’s movies. How does he get his actors to cry so convincingly? ”I show them my bank balance!“ laughs the 55-year-old director of Distant Voices, Still Lives and now The House of Mirth, starring a luminous Gillian Anderson. ”That usually sets them off.“
Davies, one of Britain‘s greatest directors, is broke. ”To keep expenses down on Mirth my fees were slashed three times. I owe more money now than when I started. It’s hard, but I‘m not a jobbing director. I wish I were, but I have to care about what I’m making. Stupid! Stupid!“ Davies is probably too honest for his own good. His refusal to do hack work means that he‘s made just seven films. But abstinence pays off on the screen, and Davies’ oeuvre is almost sui generis in modern cinema. His autobiographical works — the three shorts known as the ”Terence Davies Trilogy,“ the features Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes — are unflinching yet finally uplifting looks at the director‘s grindingly impoverished 1950s Liverpool upbringing, in a house overseen by a monstrous father and at a school where he endured years of relentless bullying over his emerging homosexuality.
”What life taught me was to be stoic,“ Davies says of those terrible years. ”If bad things happen, you must endure them and never complain. No one — not a soul — knew I was beaten up every day for four years. I didn’t tell anyone. But,“ he says with an impish grin, ”it puts iron in the soul!“ He admits that all these attempts to exorcise his memories have not fully worked. ”They stay with you because they happen when you‘re at your most vulnerable. There’s no catharsis. I thought there would be, but there isn‘t. What you come to realize is the arbitrariness of the world, that suffering has no meaning. It just happens to you if you’re unlucky.“
The House of Mirth, which Davies calls ”my first really mature work,“ takes the director into the field of literary adaptation. Davies has moved into what he calls ”proper linear narrative,“ jettisoning the striking sound-image assemblages and intoxicating style of his previous work for greater narrative precision and a banking down of his emotional fires. He has also made adjustments to the way he works with actors. He used to let actors read the script just once, then take it back. They were permitted one glance at their lines before going in front of the camera. ”You can only do that if a film‘s about mood and juxtaposition of images,“ he says. ”You can’t do that with Edith Wharton. The material‘s too dense, and they’ve got to have the script for as long as they need it. It wasn‘t a problem — though I’m sure the actors didn‘t like it at the time, because I will give line readings if I think the cadence of the line is false or the rhythm is wrong. But they were absolutely gracious about it. In one interview, Eric Stoltz said I ’don‘t so much direct as conduct,’ which is a lovely way of phrasing it. No, they weren‘t used to detailed direction. Yes, my direction is very rigorous. I’ve been an actor. I know the tricks. If something‘s insincere, I can smell it.“
For all the adjustments he’s made, The House of Mirth is still indubitably a Davies movie — a slap in the face to Merchant-Ivory and the Brit-lit heritage adaptation. Audiences have been leaving the film emotionally shriven, exhilarated by Davies‘ ability to communicate raw feelings so directly. But despite the gathering critical unanimity over the film’s many transcendent virtues, Davies is pessimistic about his future employment prospects. ”It‘s hard when you have a mortgage to pay. It would be nice not to have to worry about money so much, but I move from one set of debts to the next. You can do that when you’re young, but I‘m 55 now and I just want an easy life. And as a director I feel like a dinosaur, to be honest. The things I value are no longer valued: craft, telling a story well, being cinematic and not just an extension of TV. I don’t feel part of any kind of community and never have. I feel like I‘m probably past my sell-by date by now.“