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.”