Davies was born in Kensington, Liverpool, Lancashire, to working class Catholic parents, the youngest of ten children. Though raised Catholic by his deeply religious mother, he later rejected religion and considers himself an atheist.
After leaving school at sixteen, he worked for ten years as a shipping office clerk and as an unqualified accountant, before leaving Liverpool to attend Coventry Drama School. While there, he wrote the screenplay for what became his first autobiographical short, Children (1976), filmed under the auspices of the BFI Production Board. After this introduction to film-making, Davies went to the National Film School, completing Madonna and Child (1980), a continuation of the story of Davies' alter ego, Robert Tucker, covering his years as a clerk in Liverpool. Three years later, he completed the trilogy with Death and Transfiguration (1983), in which he hypothesizes the circumstances of his death. These works went on to be screened together at film festivals throughout Europe and the US as The Terence Davies Trilogy, winning numerous awards. Davies, who is gay, frequently explores gay themes in his films.
Due to funding difficulties and his refusal to compromise, Davies' output has been comparatively sporadic, with only seven feature films released to date.
Davies' first two features, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, are very autobiographical films set in 1940s and '50s Liverpool, and they are his most celebrated works. In reviewing Distant Voices, Still Lives when it was first released, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote that "years from now when practically all the other new movies currently playing are long forgotten, it will be remembered and treasured as one of the greatest of all English films." In 2002, critics polled for Sight & Sound ranked Distant Voices, Still Lives as the ninth best film of the previous 25 years. Jean-Luc Godard, often dismissive of British cinema in general, singled out Distant Voices, Still Lives as a major exception, calling it "magnificent." The Long Day Closes was also praised by J. Hoberman as "Davies' most autobiographical and fully achieved work."
Davies' next two features, The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth, were adaptations of novels by John Kennedy Toole and Edith Wharton, respectively. The House of Mirth received favorable reviews, with Film Comment naming it one of the 10 best films of 2000. Gillian Anderson would also win Best Performance in the Second Annual Village Voice Film Critics' Poll, and the film was named the third best film of 2000 in the same poll.
Soon after completing The House of Mirth, Davies intended fifth feature was Sunset Song, an adaptation of the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Financing proved difficult as Scottish and international backers left the project after the BBC, Channel 4, and the UK Film Council each rejected proposals for final funds. Davies apparently considered Kirsten Dunst for the lead role before the project was postponed.
In the interim, Davies produced two works for radio, A Walk to the Paradise Garden, an original radio play broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2001, and a two-part radio adaptation of Virginia Woolf's The Waves, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2007.
The long interval between films ended with his first documentary Of Time and the City, which was premiered out of competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The work uses vintage newsreel footage, contemporary popular music and a narration by Davies himself as a bittersweet paean to his hometown of Liverpool. It received positive reviews on its premiere.
The Deep Blue Sea, based on the play by Terence Rattigan, which was commissioned by the Rattigan Trust. The film was also met with widespread acclaim, with Rachel Weisz winning the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress and topping the Village Voice Film Critics' Poll for best lead female performance as well.
Davies was set to direct Uncle Vanya at Wyndham's Theatre in 2013.
Davies eventually found finance for Sunset Song in 2012, and went into production in 2014. In October 2014 the film went into post-production. It was released in 2015.
Davies' next film was A Quiet Passion, based on the life of U.S poet Emily Dickinson.
Davies is currently developing a biopic of poet and World War 1 veteran Siegfried Sassoon titled Benediction, aimed to be released in time for the centenary of the end of the First World War. Davies is also developing an adaptation of Richard McCann's 2005 novel Mother of Sorrows.Children (1976 – short)
Madonna and Child (1980 – short)
Death and Transfiguration (1983 – short)
The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984 – collects the above three)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
The Long Day Closes (1992)
The Neon Bible (1995)
The House of Mirth (2000)
Of Time and the City (2008)
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Sunset Song (2015)
A Quiet Passion (2016)
Mother of Sorrows (TBA)
1988 FIPRESCI Prize of the Cannes Film Festival: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1988 Golden Leopard of the Locarno International Film Festival: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1988 International Critics' Award of the Toronto International Film Festival: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1989 London Film Critics Circle Award for Film of the Year: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1989 London Film Critics Circle Award for Director of the Year: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1989 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Foreign Language Film: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1990 Belgian Film Critics Association Grand Prix: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1990 Amanda Award for Best International Film: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1992 Evening Standard British Film Award for Best Screenplay: The Long Day Closes
2007 British Film Institute Fellowship
2009 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Non-Fiction Film: Of Time and the City
2009 Australian Film Critics Association Award for Best Documentary: Of Time and the City
2012 Maverick Spirit Award of the Cinequest Film Festival
1988 European Film Award for Best Film: Distant Voices, Still Lives
1988 European Film Award for Best Director: Distant Voices, Still Lives
2000 USC Scripter Award: The House of Mirth
2000 Satellite Award for Best Adapted Screenplay: The House of Mirth
2000 London Film Critics Circle Award for British Director of the Year: The House of Mirth
2000 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director: The House of Mirth
2000 BIFA Award for Best British Independent Film: The House of Mirth
2001 BAFTA Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film: The House of Mirth
2008 London Film Critics Circle Award for British Director of the Year: Of Time and the City
2008 Best Film Award of The Culture Show: Of Time and the City
2011 Best Film Award of the BFI London Film Festival: The Deep Blue Sea