Of Time and The City

 ★★★★★ 

Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City might be his finest work; the epitome of his style and method, and also his most accessible and relevant, probably so for years to come.

Just as with his story based films this tribute to Liverpool -the director’s beloved home city- is told through fractured, disparate memories. Normally when someone tells the story of a place, they start at the beginning and then relay chronological facts and, bizarrely, despite all the information, the essence of the place becomes more distant. Davies’ free-wheeling approach threatens to ignore the facts and figures a geography student would need, yet his intensely personal approach brings the place to life and relates it to every one of us. We see the history of the city and the way it has fed into everyday life, yet more, we get a feel for the place, warts and all.

Terence narrates the film himself and he does so with entertaining and sometimes aggressive passion. He is an excellent speaker anyway. He avoids the obvious and reduces his voice-over to minimum, employing quotations and sound-bites. For example, Liverpool’s most famous export is arguably The Beatles and 1960s ‘Merseybeat’ pop, which he summarises in sarcastic disdain with the simple phrase (from She Loves You), “yeah, yeah, YEAH”. I don’t think he likes them! Certainly he resents the way Liverpool has been somewhat reduced by its association with the band. You may disagree with this and other points he makes; I did, but I enjoyed doing so, because everything he says is intelligent and colourful. It all adds to building an accurate vision of a proud city and you may find yourself wishing someone could unlock your own hometown in a similar way.

Davies narration is occasionally in contrast to the film (a mix of archive and new footage). For instance he films a beautiful church with respect, while speaking of his difficult Catholic upbringing. Throughout there’s a varied and stunning soundtrack and the whole package works brilliantly, giving us a piece of work that runs through so many emotions that it is an exhilarating experience. While Liverpool is the focus, Of Time And The City creates a textured and humbling testament to British life. Perhaps I should be bold and just say “to life”, British or otherwise, because I dare say everyone will find something relevant here.

The Long Day Closes

 ★★★★☆ 

The Long Day Closes feels similar to Distant Voices, Still Lives, yet it is still quite different, genuinely moving and makes for an effective companion piece. It’s still a film of moments and no plot to speak of, drawn from the directors own memories, and tied together by feeling and emotion rather than action, but whereas in Distant Voices, Still Lives the father (Pete Postlethwaite) was a constant influence on the family even after death, it’s a telling difference that he isn’t in this one at all. Without Postlethwaite’s rock, The Long Day Closes is even more dreamlike because we focus on a young boy (Bud, played by Leigh McCormack) who is more like a leaf, carried by the story rather than forcing it. Davies didn’t include a character to represent himself in his own family in Distant Voices, Still Lives, yet here he clearly is, and fatherless. That’s a telling difference between the films and one a psychologist could have a field day with. It makes for an interesting point in the first part of Davies’ Trilogy too, which preceded both of his features.

Of course the real constant is his mother, here played by Marjorie Yates. Bud is the youngest of her children and very lonely, but his relationship with her is all the more powerful for both of them and is very touching. It’s small and simple moments that linger in the memory; Bud asking his mum for enough money to go the pictures (he has a penny and just needs eleven more) for instance. Cinema plays a big part in this story. Bullied at school, unable to rely on childhood friendships and excluded from activities that his older brother and sisters do (despite them clearly adoring their kid brother) Bud regularly retreats into films that form an exotic escape.

Two more elements of Terence Davies’ history are tackled here too: religion and homosexuality. The brave writing exposes Bud’s difficulty in following his family’s Catholicism and confusion in his subtle attraction to older boys. Catholic and sexual guilt, as well as the grimness of 1950s Liverpool and canings at school, makes this film sound like a real struggle to watch, but it’s so brilliantly presented from Bud’s perspective that there is a pervading innocence and sense of nostalgia that never feels exploited. Along with the gorgeous photography and the idle camera that maintains a discreet distance it is a rewarding and poetic experience. There is a lot less singing here than in Distant Voices, Still Lives, but Davies also employs a wonderful soundtrack that carries through the film. His knowledge of music is clearly exceptional.

It’s his writing though that really brings the film’s themes together. To be able to tackle such an openly personal story with such humour and a lightness of touch is a gift. The banter between the older children and their friends is especially and frequently very funny (a couple of the friends from Distant Voices, Still Lives clearly continue to have an influence), yet it never once feels contrived. It may well be a case of writing what he knows, but Terence Davies is a master at making it relevant to all of us.

Distant Voices, Still Lives

 ★★★★★ 

Terence Davies’ début Distant Voices, Still Lives is effectively two short films largely set in 1950s Liverpool. It is an intimate depiction of a typical family, encompassing both the mundane daily chores and the big events that act like milestones in life. We see extremes of all emotions against a consistent mood of bittersweet nostalgia, embodied by a fair few good old British sing-a-longs. There are so many songs it could qualify as a musical. That this typical family happens to be based on director Terence Davies’ own background allows him to explore the events in a free-wheeling fashion that eschews a typical plot and the result is a hypnotic, dream-like masterpiece. He has created a unique film by identifying that memory is not about a plot, but about a feeling, a place or a time. Context and order is merely for the convenience of understanding ‘why’, but ‘why’ isn’t always important. Nevertheless there is a story to be found between the moments of this film and if you embrace the technique the result is captivating.

It is seemingly made up of random memories and anecdotes Davies has of his family and his style employs simple setups and graceful long shots, rich with detail and an atmosphere of realism. Yet conversely, characters speak with consistent measured dialogue, so in each scene there is a sense of an unseen narrator; so surely that’s a typical romanticised narrative rather than realism, but interestingly, there is no character that represents a young Terence, so the viewer is never given a base of reference within which you would normally find your plot and a sense of time passing; or that sense of why.

The very fact that it is so fractured raises the question of how valid it actually is as a film. It could so easily appear pointless and indulgent; merely a device the director can hide behind. I don’t mean to tar all impressionism, by the way, just that a regular cause-and-effect plot is easier to judge. If there is no traditional narrative, by what rules can it be considered good, bad, or indifferent? No matter how well performed a sequence is, is it meaningless without a clear conclusion?

The genius of Distant Voices, Still Lives is in what we learn in the small moments about certain characters and the juxtaposition between the scenes. A tearful visit to the cinema blends to an abstract view of two men falling slowly through a glass roof, while the score to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing plays over both. There is an incredibly moving festive scene with a very different effect for Christmas Eve and then Day, but possibly the most memorable scene is that of the children running to a shelter during a wartime air-raid. It’s astonishing, but sharply focused by a small moment when they reach safety. Davies has successfully mimiced the way we relate memories together. By inviting us into his past so completely and honestly, it reminds us of our own. I might be biased there, because Davies is a similar age to my parents and much of what I see in this film strikes a chord with how they related their upbringing. But in any case, his skill for relating the details of the time is so great I think anyone could find something of value in this film.

Is Davies’ grim depiction of life essentially hopeless? As with Deep Blue Sea take a sidelong glance and you’ll see it isn’t. Life was tough back then, but the spirit was always strong, as embodied by the mother (Freda Dowie), obviously an interpretation of Terence Davies’ own. On one level Distant Voices, Still Lives works as a tribute to her and women like her. There’s a wonderful moment when she’s cleaning a window. It’s so simple but very effective and could represent the tone of the whole film as she takes a risk that makes her daughter gasp, but it’s a risk she probably took every week or so because windows need cleaning! While Dowie is the anchor of the film, Pete Postlethwaite is the terrifying shadow over all of them as the violent father. He demonstrates the generosity of Davies’ writing with moments both good and bad (the Christmas scenes in particular) that can’t possibly be a consistent memory from one emotional person, but a realistic depiction of a very complicated man who would let his temper get the better of him.

It’s certainly not all grim though. There are a lot of easy, lighter scenes between the kids especially (Lorraine Ashbourne, Angela Walsh and Dean Williams) as they go out with friends (including the hilarious Debi Jones), sing a lot and eventually marry. I say eventually, but the back to front nature of the film doesn’t necessarily show the lives in order. It’s interesting to see how the same sorts of characters pop up in The Long Day Closes as Terence Davies continues to refer back to his upbringing.

I could say Terence puts his heart and soul into his films, but that would be wrong; it is his heart and soul. I’m not sure I have ever seen a body of work that so reflects the director, with such open honesty. So as I asked earlier, how do we judge such work? It’s those pesky goosebumps again. Davies, a true cinematic poet, is a director who relies on his own rhythm and when that matches ours as well, it’s a beautiful piece of work to experience. It might require a bit of effort to look past the lack of a plot, but that effort is rewarded in one of the most unique and simply affecting films you will ever see.

The Deep Blue Sea

 ★★★★☆ 

This story is a simple, but powerful drama, aggressively adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. I say “aggressively” because Rattigan’s play is structured quite differently. It is still clearly the story of three distinct characters, but director Terence Davies approached it exclusively from Hester’s (Rachel Weisz) perspective and rebuilt the narrative around her.

Davies has captured the solid core of the drama, complete with precise dialogue and rounded characters, and delivered it in a visual fashion that only cinema can do. The effect is extraordinary, occasionally sublime and genuinely deserving of being called poetic, which is an overused term. It can feel like a contradiction, but it’s important that it holds such power because on paper the story is not what we would call a barrel of laughs! However it has some tricks up its sleeve to always be thoughtful, engrossing and rewarding. The opening scene is Weisz as Hester trying to commit suicide and being rescued by her landlady and another resident, who probably isn’t a proper doctor, but knows enough to rescue the ailing girl from herself. We’re in the 1950s, it’s bleak and this tale of how destructive love can be is taking no prisoners already.

From there the narrative moves freely through the preceding months to show us how Hester came to be so desperate. She was married to a Judge (Simon Russell Beale) and truly loved him, but his traditional nature, standing in society and strong relationship with his mother was suffocating Hester, so much so she was easily tempted by the promise of adventure and passion with pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and embarks on an affair, eventually leaving her husband. But Freddie isn’t ready for such strong emotions and can’t fully return Hester’s affection. All three are innocent and act nobly in varying degrees, but they just need something different from each other and it’s heart-breaking. That opening scene turns out to be in the dingy flat that Hester finds herself sharing with Freddie and her suicide attempt is the counter-point of the plot.

There is no escaping the rigidity of the story’s theatrical foundation, but this is to the benefit of the actors who would relish the rhythm of the dialogue and the depth of the characters. Rachel Weisz is simply stunning as the brittle and flawed Hester. She’s a tough character because Davies is acutely aware of how women of that time were expected to behave in society and that shadows all her decisions. Her pride is tangible even as it threatens to destroy her. Simon Russell Beale also had a balancing act as the wounded husband. This mummy’s boy could easily appear pathetic, but his honesty and integrity is inspiring. With those two defined so well it would be easy to consider Tom Hiddleston’s younger pilot character the villain, but to his credit Hiddleston effortlessly shows us a man scared of commitment and responsibility, yet defends that flawed nature and gets as much sympathy from the viewer as the others seem to deserve. A scene towards the end is very moving and powerful as he finally faces up to circumstances that are not his fault.

And what of the mother-in-law, a character who wasn’t in the play at all? Knowing as I do now Davies’ own relationship with his beloved mother and his ability to be sharply self-critical, there is an irony in the scenes between Beale and Barbara Jefford. She delivers what should be unwieldy dialogue with the precision of a dagger! Davies also changed the character of Hester’s landlady to be more realistic and gives her a great scene to shame Hester where she explains what real love is. I won’t spoil it here because it’s a cracking line.

The elegant narrative allows for Davies to interpret the scenes in ways the play could never do. Not only does he bring his considerable personal understanding of the time to frame the story more realistically with a meticulous and tangible set design, the poet in him allows for some gorgeous sequences. A lot of his work is based on the indistinct nature of memory -in this case, Hester’s rather than his own- and two moments in particular are incredible. One, a slow pan through a tube station being used as a shelter during the blitz and a second one that starts with a rowdy pub sing-along to ‘You Belong To me’ and lets the sound meld into the original recording as Hester and Freddie dance slowly. If you’re wondering what constitutes perfect cinema, just check for goosebumps. Honestly, twice in one film is vulgar.

It is a tough story, but the realism of the work frames the story in nostalgia that is bittersweet, yet always with a realistic sense of hope. The Deep Blue Sea treads a fine line and does so with the grace of a musical (Davies’ use of soundtracks in his work is incredible; Distant Voices, Still Lives is virtually a musical). The films absence at both the BAFTA’s and the Oscar’s is to the industry’s continuing shame as it at least deserved nominations for acting, direction, cinematography and adapted screenplay.

The Terence Davies Trilogy

 ★★★★☆ 

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: ChildrenMadonna and ChildDeath 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.