Director: Terence Davies
The early short films of Terence Davies, just in case you were wondering who made them…
Children (1976): The somewhat singular career of Liverpool’s favourite (?) gay son began here with what I suppose can be charitably called an obvious beginner’s work, the tale of his autobiographical stand-in Robert Tucker as a boy and a young adult. Supposedly Davies had written the script, sent it out and about, and it was picked up by the BFI, who thrust £8,500 at him and said “right, direct it”. (These low-budget British films really are a running theme at the moment here…) The BFI had confidence in the young man who’d never directed before—more so than most of his crew apparently did—and there are times when this fact perhaps shows. Children is markedly longer than either of the other two films, clocking in at 46 minutes, which is a difficult length for a film; it’s hardly a “short” but equally it’s not quite a feature, which problem I don’t think Davies ever fully resolves. The cutting in time between schoolboy Robert and adult Robert is a bit, I don’t know, vague or something; it never really seems to come quite together. Still, as Davies is right to note in his commentary, there are some definitely felicitous moments, and it’s not bad for a beginner’s work.
Madonna and Child (1980): Robert Tucker in later adulthood, in which the first film’s hints at its protagonist’s homosexuality are rather expanded upon. By this time Davies was out of the crushing clerical job he depicts in the film, and an honest-to-god/dess film student; clearly, though, the act of making Children had been educational in itself, and you can see him refining himself on this second go round. Running under 30 minutes this time, the end result is much tighter and the ideas on show are more interesting—particularly the rather astounding conversation with the tattooist as the camera surveys the Stations of the Cross. And Robert himself is made more interesting in this film, too, not really at home in the straight world—meaning both the “hetero” world and the everyday working world—nor really within the gay community either (as witness the aforementioned tattooist conversation and his faintly tragic attempt to get into an underground gay club).
Death and Transfiguration (1983): Robert Tucker at the end of his life, looking back on what was. Davies says in his commentary this was him finding his voice, and he has something; if the second film was a marked advance on the first, this is an even further leap ahead. This is an amazingly dense film, full of shifts in time and so forth, but it feels really controlled; this is a work by someone who finally knows exactly what he’s doing. As such it’s probably the most difficult of the three films in a way, but probably also the high point of the trilogy; Wilfred Brambell is kind of amazing as the aged Robert even though he doesn’t actually really do or say anything because by this time the character is dying of a stroke that’s left him mute and immobile, but his presence seems exactly right somehow. And there’s something kind of terrifying about the very end when the screen goes white and his breath suddenly stops.
On the whole, I think the trilogy more than lives up to its reputation for dourness. It’s not the most immediately appealing material (basically it’s Davies spending 100 minutes working out his own issues about school, being gay, his parents, his shitty office job, his fear of a lonely death), nor the most ingratiating presentation of same (nice 16mm b/w filming, yes, but that only goes so far). And it was criticised at the time for not being, well, “glad to be gay” enough for the critical taste of the period. That said, it’s a film about Terence Davies, who is a man who’s always had issues with his own homosexuality, and he obviously didn’t feel capable of imagining himself into a character who was comfortable with his. As such I’m more inclined to respect him for that honesty.
I did wonder while watching just how “planned” the trilogy was when Davies first wrote the script for Children in 1972. Cos it is noticeable that none of the films really works on its own; each depends upon the other two. And his producer does say in the DVD booklet that Davies envisaged Madonna and Child as the second part of a trilogy. I just wonder how much the eventual trilogy was what he thought it’d be, cos each of the films is quite distinct from the others as much as they do depend on each other as well. The cumulative power of the whole is what really makes the thing, I suppose, cos initially it does take a while to get into but by the end it adds up to something quite remarkable.