*A version of this essay was originally published by Fandor on October 8, 2016
The Deep Blue Sea (2011) begins and ends at a window in London around 1950. Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s acclaimed postwar play invented these scenes to establish the film’s point of view as belonging to Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz). These window bookends also firmly establish The Deep Blue Sea as a Terence Davies film.
Windows are fundamental to Davies’ visual and emotional language. He uses them as both a storytelling and a framing device. They take us in and out of the narrative, adding form and feeling to interior spaces. Windows often signify the passing of time, a T.S. Eliot-inspired overlap of past, present, and future action. Davies also knows that windows have aesthetic appeal. His great love of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), is evident in his own painterly attention to lighting and composition. Windows let the light in. Yet Davies’s characters are never placed at a window just to look pretty while they gaze wistfully into the middle distance. Within the meticulous fabric of his films, windows play a far more complex role.
Davies has a personal connection with windows. As the youngest of ten children, he often found himself home alone, awaiting the return of his older siblings. He was conscious of the physicality of the house at 18 Kensington Street, Liverpool—the front door, the windows, and the staircase all settling into silence around him. For Davies, interior spaces are alive, marked by the passage of time and by the presence and absence of the bodies that live and breathe in them.
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) recreates scenes from Davies’ own life. We start with an empty house that fills with ghosts from his past. Thursday was washing day, and the curtains would come off the windows. The house fascinated Davies; he would stand outside and look in at it as if seeing it anew. This experience is evoked in Distant Voices, Still Lives as the three children watch their mother (Freda Dowie), perched precariously both inside and outside the window as she cleans it. They each worry that she’ll fall, but the windows are stable, part of the foundation of the house. The danger is elsewhere, as Davies shows, in the explosive scene that follows, when their violent father (Pete Postlethwaite) beats her.
Davies’ windows are a space for the individual but also for the idea of community. This is clear in his deeply personal documentary essay about Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008). Constructed predominantly from archival footage, it nonetheless contains a sequence that is pure Davies: a window smashed and unhinged as Liverpool terraces are demolished for council high-rise estates. Time passes, community breaks down, and isolation increases. The disturbed window becomes a symbol of an altered or shattered view of the world. As Davies says, quoting Anton Chekhov, “The golden moments pass and leave no trace.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that the archetypal Davies protagonist is often positioned at a window—at home, at school, outside the pub, or on a bus or train. In addition to Hester, there’s Robert Tucker, the protagonist of Davies’s autobiographical trilogy of short films (known collectively as The Terence Davies Trilogy); Bud from 1992’s The Long Day Closes; and David from 1995’s The Neon Bible—each looks beyond the glass, separated from others and from the action of life, in a sort of limbo land. We see what they look at, but mostly we just observe them absorbed in the act of looking. From this station we understand that they’re isolated and lonely, eager to escape, desperate to connect. In The Neon Bible, David can see the full moon caught in the window, and repeatedly reaches out as if to grab it. Dreaming beyond the glass, like so many of Davies’ characters, he’s on the verge of significant change.
Looking beyond the window evokes a yearning to connect. We see it in an early scene in Children (1976), the first short film of the Trilogy, when Robert sits on the bus with his mother. In this extraordinary two-minute sequence, we do little but watch them—his mum looking straight ahead, unmoving, as Robert, with his back to us, looks out the grimy window at the city passing by. Outside there is forward motion, inside stasis, but a yearning for community beyond the frame. Similarly, at the conclusion of the Trilogy, in Death and Transfiguration (1983), the now elderly Robert lies dying, and reaches out to the white light of the window—for his mother, for God, for anything but isolation.
Above all else, windows in Davies’ films are transformative spaces that suggest the possibility of growth or change. Although so many Davies characters are conflicted and unhappy, the transitional space of the window is overwhelmingly the locus of hope, not despair. In The Deep Blue Sea, the window in and out of Hester’s flat functions this way. When she first appears she is at a crossroads. It is night; a crane shot transports us, to the strains of Samuel Barber’s mournful Violin Concerto Op. 14 (1939), from a Blitz bomb site at the end of the street, across a building, and up to the window where Hester stands, looking outside. When the camera enters the room, she closes the curtains on the world and attempts suicide.
By the time we reach The Deep Blue Sea’s final sequence, Hester has changed. A new day is unfolding. She stands at the window again, raises her arms and emphatically opens the curtains in an embrace of life. Another crane shot takes us back out the window, down the building, and across to rest once again on the bombed ruins. It’s the same sequence as the first, in reverse, and different. There is light now, and Hester is captured inside the window, smiling. Where the window was a symbol of despair, a portal to a cruel world she wanted to shut out and leave, now it has transformed into a symbol of hope and renewal.
In The Long Day Closes, the point of view is Bud’s. Windows, here, at which he’s often perched, are like the windows in Distant Voices, Still Lives—central to the life of the house. Like Hester, Bud is at a crossroads, caught in that space between childhood and adolescence. Like Davies did as a boy, Bud loves to go to the pictures. (Davies discovered Singin’ in the Rain when he was seven and then swallowed cinema whole.) Windows create frames within the frame of the screen, so that each vista becomes like a movie, that Bud is constantly watching: his adored mother, his brothers, his sister and her girlfriends, his neighbours, the falling snow that marks the return of Christmas. The scenes have a deep stillness about them, but each is roused with Bud’s emotions, his loneliness palpable. Windows also provide Bud with moments for self-discovery. Early on in the film, he watches a handsome, shirtless bricklayer working outside in the house next door, and is unnerved when the man looks back and winks. Without a word, we understand that Bud is awakening to his homosexuality.
Davies also uses windows to explore the primary concerns of his forty-year career: time and memory. Positioning characters self-reflectively at windows allows them to exist simultaneously in the present, past, and future: grounded in the now, tied to history, and dreaming beyond both. In The Neon Bible, the train window is a vehicle for memory—an idea perfected in The Deep Blue Sea, where memory is non-linear, arising, as Davies has explained, from “the intensity of the moment and nothing else.”
As she recovers from her suicide attempt, Hester returns to the window. She stands still and quietly smokes. But she’s moving, through fragments of the past. She remembers a conversation with her husband, William (Simon Russell Beale), telling him that she passionately loves another man, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Motion and stasis overlap, a visualization of the lines from the end of the first part of ‘Burnt Norton’ in Davies’s beloved Eliot poem, Four Quartets: “Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.” Standing before the window also demands that Hester stop and actually look at herself. Davies turns the window not only into a gateway for memory but also a mirror reflecting Hester back to herself (and us) in a moment of confrontation.
A similar overlap of past, present, and future time occurs in Sunset Song (2015). On the night before her wedding to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), Chris (Agyness Deyn) reclines on her bed pondering the idea of their future together, the dreamlike strangeness of it all. The camera tilts up from the bed to the window. The night scene then dissolves into golden day, with Chris seated at the same window, ready to face her future. After they’re married, the window in the kitchen looking out on the farm becomes a site for yearning, as Chris sits watching Ewan work, full of love for him and eager for his return. But later, when she waits there for Ewan to return on leave from war, the almost identical pose of anticipation now carries the weight of grief.
In contrast, Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000) is striking for its far less hopeful approach. Here, in a narrative of ever-darkening despair, windows are significant because of their absence. Unlike Hester, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is unable to face herself, as is revealed in an early scene where, after telling a lie, she sinks into her seat and lowers her eyes from her reflection in the window of a train. Increasingly isolated from her community, Lily moves further from the light. Rooms become darker and more shadowy. Davies makes the point explicit by the film’s finale: discovering Lily dead, Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz) walks to the window and opens the curtains, an action that comes, tragically, too late.
But Lily Bart is an anomaly in the Davies canon. For most, there is light. The Long Day Closes ends with a poignant provocation. We see Bud and his good friend Albie (Kerl Skeggs) seated in front of what appears to be an enormous window, opening onto the edge of the world. The night sky is massive, and expands in front of them like a screen. Davies adds a spiritual element—a moment in which Bud observes the eternal nature of the sky and the stars and the vastness of the world that exists beyond his window. It’s a view that contains the boundless promise of hope and the mystery of the life ahead of him.