'Even my therapist hates my father now'

'The House of Mirth' is new territory for director Terence Davies. Trevor Johnston discovers how 'The X-Files' helped him get over his childhood
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The Independent Culture

Call it celluloid fate, if you will, but Terence Davies was blissfully unaware that his The Long Day Closes was one of Gillian Anderson's favourite films before he cast the X-Files star as the lead in his latest film. In fact, Davies barely knew who she was, had never even seen her on the box as sceptical investigator Dana Scully, and initially chose her as the ill-fated heroine in his adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth simply on the strength of a photograph.

Call it celluloid fate, if you will, but Terence Davies was blissfully unaware that his The Long Day Closes was one of Gillian Anderson's favourite films before he cast the X-Files star as the lead in his latest film. In fact, Davies barely knew who she was, had never even seen her on the box as sceptical investigator Dana Scully, and initially chose her as the ill-fated heroine in his adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth simply on the strength of a photograph.

"I was trying to find someone who looked like she might have stepped out from one of John Singer Sargent's society portraits, and there she was," recalls the 55-year-old writer-director, still best known for shaping his formative experiences in working-class Liverpool into vividly cinematic form in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Terence Davies Trilogy. "Gillian just happened to be in London at the time, on holiday. We met up, and she was very interested. Afterwards, I went back over to America, did a longer audition with her, and it was as simple as that."

This unlikely alliance could hardly have worked out better for both of them. Anderson is, quite simply, a revelation as Lily Bart, the husband-hunting New York society girl who assumes an unexpected integrity by remaining true to herself even at the cost of ostracisation from her cosseted background of old money.

Certainly, she has the right milky-skinned look for the period. Yet Anderson also shows an effortless control over the elegantly turned phrases in the writing. Keeping genuine emotional expression just below the surface, her disciplined restraint certainly pays off as the film reaches the tear-streaked culmination of its 140 minutes.

For Davies, too, it's a triumph when he needed it, given the decidedly mixed critical reaction and pronounced commercial apathy which greeted his last release, The Neon Bible, back in 1995.

Although it was based on a novel by A Confederacy of Dunces, author John Kennedy Toole, the film's detractors complained that Davies was ploughing over-familiar terrain (sensitively passive young protagonist, ne'er-do-well father, suffering womenfolk) - even if the setting was Forties Georgia rather than the Merseyside of the director's own troubled youth. The House of Mirth proves a spectacular riposte though, expanding its makers accomplishment way beyond the painstaking grace of his characteristic highly composed storytelling style.

Here Davies has crafted wonderfully concentrated dialogue that's hard to distinguish from Wharton's artful bons mots, and adapted resourcefully to the budgetary constraints of recreating 1905 New York amid the imposing surroundings of Glasgow's Great Western Road. The director has also rediscovered the power of performance, drawing work of unparalleled subtlety and power from Anderson and a whole roster of Hollywood faces in the supporting cast - Eric Stoltz as Lily's wavering suitor, Laura Linney, Anthony LaPaglia and Dan Aykroyd included.

Not for Davies, however, the heritage cinema prettification of Merchant-Ivory at their most anodyne, since what attracted him to the material was the sort of cruelty Scorsese also brought out in his (rather more self-consciously sumptuous) version of The Age of Innocence.

"With Edie Wharton, the gloves are off and there's blood on the walls," enthuses Davies, a dapper figure in thin-framed round spectacles and neatly trimmed grey hair, whose soft-spoken tones swiftly grow more fervent any time he touches on a subject about which he cares deeply - his films, for instance, or the strain of Hollywood movie melodrama (including All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession and Letter from an Unknown Woman) which has suffused his being since the silver screen entered his childhood and never left.

"What's wonderful about this book is its modernity. What's it about? The way you look and how much money you've got. What's modern culture about? How you look and how much money you've got! Nothing has changed, only the mode of expression and the modus vivendi. Nothing!... Nothing!!"

At this point, he gets so excited he doesn't notice the fragment of custard cream he's spat halfway across the table between us. But with Davies there are never really any half-measures, such is his single-minded relationship with his work. It takes him time between films because he has to write all the shots and every single camera movement into the script as he goes along. And he only gives himself two drafts to get it right. It's easy to see how such working methods could result in the richness of visual and aural detail patterned into Distant Voices... and The Long Day Closes.

However, if Davies' encounter with Wharton has slightly shifted the emphasis towards dialogue (and what it leaves unsaid, of course), there's a continuing thread in the films of exploring the way our sense of self is shaped and deepened by adversity. Thankfully, Davies has managed to get his glitzy cast (all of them working for rather less than usual, given the film's trim £5.2m budget) to respond as deeply as he does - though one suspects that they haven't been directed in quite this way before. In advance of one key scene, for instance, he read Eric Stoltz some lines Gustav Mahler wrote to his wife Alma on completion of his Second Symphony. "There are no sinners, none is great, none is small," recites Davies, with obvious feeling. "Simply, we know. We are."

Slightly precious? Well, perhaps it seems so when quoted out of context, but Stoltz noticeably digs in during the sequence in question, and Davies only wants the audience to take the film as seriously as he takes it himself. Indeed, he's so caught up in it all, you'd hardly think there was a dividing line between the man and his movies. "I know you can't please everybody, and people who don't like my work will still say this is too slow. But I'm as ego-driven and as vain as anybody else. Because of my problems, I want people to like my work, so in effect they're liking me. It's odd that someone as insecure as me should go into a business like this. Very peculiar. But I'm getting help. Even my therapist hates my father now, you'll be pleased to hear."

Analysis has been part of his life for about four years now ("He's wise and you can say things to him that you can't say to anybody else, because it might be too petty or silly"), without much concern that lifting the psychological shadows might have any diminishing effect on his creativity.

"No, very few people are vouchsafed a long career, and no one wants to see me keeping doing the same old thing. My personal past is gone now in terms of film. I've nothing else to say on that, and if I have it will be in the autobiography I'm writing. But I mean to develop until I die. My great templates are Bruckner and Sibelius, because their symphonies got better and better as they got older. Otherwise, what's the point?"

'The House of Mirth' (PG) is released 13 October

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