×

Toronto: Terence Davies on ‘Sunset Song,’ Agyness Deyn and Preferring the Past

Terence Davies is the first to admit that he is, to put it bluntly, out of touch. “I don’t understand the modern world,” he says cheerfully, his mellifluous vowels crackling down the phone from Toronto, where he’s just arrived for this year’s festival. “I’m a shameless Luddite; I prefer a romantic world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.”

It’s that very admission, however, that has made Davies one of Britain’s most treasured filmmakers. From his early short films to his much garlanded 1988 debut “Distant Voices, Still Lives” to 2011’s Rachel Weisz-starring Terence Rattigan adaptation “The Deep Blue Sea,” the writer-director’s work has been colored by a kind of wistful nostalgia, honouring both the romance and resilience of previous generations.

Unspooling as a Special Presentation in Toronto, Davies’ seventh — and most epically scaled — feature “Sunset Song” maintains that reflective sensibility. Adapted from a celebrated 1932 novel by Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the film chronicles the struggle of a young woman (played by Agyness Deyn) to maintain her family farm in northeast Scotland, in the face of personal tragedy and the blight of the First World War.

Davies encountered the novel via its BBC television adaptation in 1971, well before the former bookkeeper’s film career had begun. He admits that the dense volume “rewards perseverance,” but was immediately moved by its “very primal” tale.

“It’s a story in which all suffering is forgiven and accepted,” he explains. “The ending is quite sublime.” As in a number of his films, the enduring comforts and conflicts of family are crucial to its narrative. “Family is macrocosm of all that is wonderful and terrible in our lives, and it’s a journey we all go through,” he continues, citing Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis” as the ultimate template for exploring this dynamic on screen.

Classic Hollywood cinema is a constant reference point for Davies, particularly the love stories and melodramas referred to then “women’s pictures”: “I grew up in an era where women were the heroes on screen, and that had a great influence on me. But you can’t imitate those films; you can only reflect and refract them in your own.”

He cites something of a Joan Fontaine quality in Dean, the 32-year-old supermodel-turned-actress. “She has one of those extraordinary faces that can look 11 years old in one shot, and womanly in another,” he says, admitting that he had no idea who she was when she arrived to audition. “I don’t know pop culture at all; I thought she was just a new actress. But as soon as her audition began, I felt something in my stomach.”

Davies began developing the script for “Sunset Song” 15 years ago, but with the film now complete, the director’s famously deliberate work pace has quickened up. He’s presently cutting “A Quiet Passion,” a Cynthia Nixon-starring biopic of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson that reps his first U.S.-set project since 1995’s “The Neon Bible.” Also in the works is an adaptation of Richard McCann’s interwoven short story collection “Mother of Sorrows,” the narrative of which will span several decades leading up to 1980 — “That’s as up to date as I get,” he chuckles.

It’s a run of activity that he attributes only to “sheer luck.” “People tell me I’m more prolific these days, but I’m getting help with that,” he says wryly. “Still, I’m almost 70. I’m not a kid anymore.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Matthew Modine

    Supporters Back Matthew Modine After Clumsy Joke at SAG-AFTRA Meeting

    More than 100 women, including Ellen Barkin and Allison Janney, have voiced support for Matthew Modine’s campaign for SAG-AFTRA presidency, following a joke at a SAG-AFTRA meeting that some decried as misogynist. With voting set to conclude on Aug. 28, the campaigns have featured vitriolic attacks between supporters of Modine, secretary-treasurer Jane Austin and incumbent [...]

  • Lady Gaga

    Variety Earns 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Award Nominations

    Variety has received 14 Folio: Eddie & Ozzie award nominations for its coverage of the entertainment industry over the past year. The awards gala, which will take place at The Hilton Midtown in New York City on Oct. 30, celebrates publications that have demonstrated impressive investigative journalism, in addition to thoughtful digital and print design. [...]

  • WGA Agents Packaging Fight Placeholder

    Writers Guild Withdraws State Suit Against Agencies, Refiles in Federal Court

    The Writers Guild of America has withdrawn its state court suit against WME, CAA, UTA and ICM Partners alleging packaging fees are illegal and re-filed suit in federal court. The WGA also responded to antitrust claims brought against the guild by the three agencies. Those agency suits alleged that the WGA abused its power in [...]

  • Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart

    Tim Roth to Receive Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award

    British actor Tim Roth is to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award in recognition of his “exceptional contribution to the art of film.” The ceremony at the Sarajevo Film Festival will be held on Tuesday. He will hold a masterclass on the same day. His first screen role was the lead in the controversial [...]

  • Isabelle Huppert, receives the Honorary Heart

    Isabelle Huppert on Fateful Encounters, the Nature of Acting and Judging a Good Script

    Celebrated actress Isabelle Huppert, speaking at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Sunday, looked back on her illustrious career in a candid discussion that touched on her acting, the many renowned directors with whom she’s worked, and the importance of dialogue. The festival honored Huppert with its Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award “in recognition of her [...]

  • Inauguracion SANFIC 2019

    15th Sanfic Touts Attendance Rise, Hosts Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura

    SANTIAGO — Chile’s Santiago International Film Festival (Sanfic) launched its 15th edition Sunday Aug. 18 with three of Latin America’s best-known actors, Gael Garcia Bernal, Wagner Moura (“Narcos”) and Graciela Borges (“La Cienaga”), to which it bestowed career recognition awards. “It’s been 15 years in which we have presented more than 1,400 films,” noted Francisca [...]

  • Sarajevo, Intl. Casting Directors Network Look

    Sarajevo Film Festival and International Casting Directors Network Look to Launch Local Stars

    The Intl. Casting Directors Network (ICDN) and the Sarajevo Film Festival are joining forces to turn the popular Bosnian film fest into a springboard for regional actors looking to launch international careers. After kicking off with a pilot version last year, the initiative expanded to include a series of masterclasses with leading casting directors and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content