To my shame I had only vaguely heard of Terence Davies. To the industry’s shame, they seem to know of him even less, yet the phrase “visual poet” has never been more apt and he deserves much greater recognition.
I’d wanted to see The Deep Blue Sea merely on the trailer and the fact it starred possibly my favourite actress Rachel Weisz, but then I read interviews with Davies in Sight And Sound and Empire, and heard yet another on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s 5 Live show. Soon I was as interested in the film because of him as much as anything else and when I did see it, I was lucky enough to do so at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham where he attended a Q&A afterwards. After reading those articles and hearing him speak, the film was clearly an extension of him. The Q&A confirmed that further, but after now seeing his earlier work I’m convinced that I have never seen another director laid so bare in the course of his films. In retrospect, The Deep Blue Sea along with House of Mirth is his most traditionally narrative film.
He’s a fascinating man, modest and unassuming, yet a collection of demons and contradictions that have both haunted and nurtured him. For instance, he is homosexual, yet he has frequently said that he loathes being gay and it’s ruined his life. He understands women incredibly well having grown up with older sisters, and he adored his mother. His father died when Terence was still young and was clearly a violent man. I’m telling you all this because these themes come through time and again in his largely autobiographical work, as well as a rich and detailed evocation of his home city, 1950s Liverpool.
His Trilogy is perhaps his most pure and challenging work, both for him and us, I shouldn’t wonder and it is interesting to consider it in light of what he would come to do in his features.
As the name suggests, The Terence Davies Trilogy is a collection of three short black and white films, made between 1976 and 1983: Children, Madonna and Child, Death and Transfiguration. I have already said that I don’t believe I know of another director who can put so much of himself into his own work, but even by his own standards, these three films are intensely personal and raw. It is testament to his skill that he should be this open and self-critical, yet the drama still works in balance. So often in film a screenwriter uses his own experiences, but fails to keep the rest of the drama in context.
The first part, Children, was difficult to watch. The stark honesty combines with a brave lack of distance between the viewer and the drama to create a painful tale of adolescence. We see a young boy called Robert Tucker (Phillip Mawdsley) struggling with bullies at school, a burgeoning homosexuality, an abusive, dying father (Nick Stringer) and his mother struggling to retain her composure, brilliantly played by Valerie Lilley. We also see an older, lonely version of Robert (a blank faced Robin Hooper). Even in its short length and even considering Davies’ method of juxtaposing abstract memories, there is still a distinct parallel to be drawn between the two versions of Robert and it is hauntingly effective. At the Q&A in Nottingham, one audience member related that Mark Cousins described Davies’ work in his Story of Film TV series as “hope has left the building”. I tend to disagree with this, yet here it could be valid; the closing shot of the younger Robert is devastating, with the last line of dialogue so self-critical, it is almost cruel, a real sting in the tail. Although it is the closing shot it validates the lonely and lost condition of the scenes featuring the older Robert. A brilliant piece of writing, a superb use of narrative, but it’s tough and easily misread as indulgent. It’s worth noting that Davies never again directly tackled the relationship between him and his father. There wasn’t a character who might be Davies in Distant Voices, Still Lives, but there was no father for the boy in The Long Day Closes.
Madonna and Child picks up the story (in a loose sense of the word as this is still fractured memories) with a middle-aged Robert (Terry O’Sullivan). I’ll say straightaway, for any of you put off by how painful Children sounds, this is your reward. Not that it’s a comedy or anything! It’s sad, but in a strangely reassuring, melancholy kind of way. Robert lives with his elderly mother (now played by Sheila Raynor) to whom he is utterly devoted. The scenes between the two of them are quiet and simple, as are the shots of Robert travelling around Liverpool. If these are the two great loves of Terence Davies’ life, it makes sense why they are so comfortingly real, even though they are rather bleak considering there seems to be little future for Robert. He is in turmoil when it comes to religion and sexuality (again, reflective of Davies), resulting in some incredible, abstract scenes, bordering on nightmarish. O’Sullivan’s hang-dog expression can’t quite prepare you for his brave performance when Robert tries to explore the seedier side of homosexuality with the threat of his Catholic upbringing hanging over him and, even more so, his guilt for the effect on his mother should she find out. So, take the scene where Robert waits for his mother to fall asleep before he sneaks out, dressed in leather, to try and get into a gay club. There is a shot of her, still awake, listening to the stairs creak and the door click. Her expression is heart-breaking. And again, when you understand that Davies is essentially relating from his own memories and that he could only imagine that she felt that way, the writing is all the more impressive for its balance.
The use of light and sound in Madonna and Child is so accomplished that transitions between the realistic or the surreal are smoothly done. Is it Davies looking at himself from two angles? The result is beautiful and powerful.
It is more of the same for the final film in the trilogy, Death and Transfiguration. A similar structure to Children, a middle-aged Robert (still Terry O’Sullivan) is alone following the death of his mother, juxtaposed with a much older Robert dying in a hospital. I don’t want to say too much about this part, just that O’Sullivan’s scenes explore his continued struggle with religion and guilt, while the scenes in the hospital are quite brilliantly staged. The final scenes are profound and passionate.
The Terence Davies Trilogy is an easier watch than you might think especially once you’re past part one! And if you do persevere, you are likely to find something pure, honest and fulfilling.