Bill Douglas Trilogy Review
One’s first impression of the Bill Douglas Trilogy – and the three films are certain to make some kind of deep impression on any viewer – is that of utter realism, a grim depiction of a deprived childhood, based on the filmmaker’s own, shot directly and economically, without adornment or obvious symbolism. And yet, there is something more to the films that differentiates them from the socialistic realism of the cinema of Ken Loach, from the psychoanalytical examination of childhood in the works of Dennis Potter and from the expressionistic poetic reminiscence of Terence Davies’ kitsch-en sink dramas. Somehow – principally through the use of image and editing, since there is minimal dialogue or narrative structure – the films My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home forge a connection that speaks directly to the viewer, mainlining misery in a rush of pure cinema.
There’s very little dialogue in any of the films and little is explained, nothing more than would be evident to a child living with simple taciturn people who want to keep their business to themselves, the situation becoming clear only with the passing of time and through bitter experience. Nonetheless, every single scene and image in the films tells its own story, relating with brutal and beautiful authenticity the experience of growing up in a poor Scottish mining town as seen through the eyes of Jamie. Set in 1945, the first film My Childhood shows Jamie and his brother Tommy living with their maternal grandmother, their mother committed to a mental institution, the boys each having a different father. The truth of Jamie’s illegitimate parentage seems to be common knowledge if not spoken about openly in the community, the situation when mentioned only in rancorous terms, with bitterness and resentment for the trouble it has caused. In the absence of any real father willing to take on responsibility for the child, Jamie finds a father-figure in a close relationship with a German POW working in the fields.
My Ain Folk takes up the story after the death of the boys’ grandmother, Tommy taken off to an institution for boys in Edinburgh, Jamie escaping a similar fate only by the belated acknowledgement of his true lineage. Life in an institution, it transpires, may well have been preferable to how the young boy lives with his parental grandmother, the juxtaposition of the imagery suggesting that the child is treated like a stray dog – rather less than a dog, as the mother’s greyhound is lavished with more care and affection, and seemingly even better fed than the young Jamie. The impact this has on the vulnerable psyche of the child can be clearly seen in the deadness of the eyes that observe the situation.
My Way Home sees Jamie try to find his place in the world as he grows into an adolescent boy and is shunted back and forth between the boys home and the mining village, doing time in foster homes and homeless shelters, wanting to be a painter, but taking up odd jobs to get by. Douglas compresses this stage of Jamie’s life into a series of dramatically lit, almost gothic tableaux, the stark lighting and empty gaze of the boy emphasising Jamie’s outsider status, the sense of loss, abandonment and emptiness he feels. The contrast couldn’t be more marked then with the sense of brightness, warmth and order that Jamie experiences as an enlisted soldier posted in Egypt, coming to discover his place in the world through his friendship with an English soldier there.
The impression given by the opening film My Childhood, one that sets a tone to be followed throughout the Trilogy, is one of direct cinema. There’s no obvious symbolism, or at least nothing that is open to interpretation – it’s resolutely concrete and unadorned of niceties. Yet that reality is expressed much more than in the normal cinematic conventions of narrative and expositional dialogue. The inner lives of the characters is clearly evident in their expressions – and more than their expressions (the non-professional acting isn’t the most polished in places), it’s in the faces themselves, faces that seem to show long, hard years of bitterness, deprivation and endurance, the young Stephen Archibald coming from a similar background to Bill Douglas. Jamie’s desires and what is missing in his life are significantly never as openly expressive as when he is with Helmuth, the German POW, but his experience and the sense of conflict that governs his existence is also evident in the configuration and proximity of houses to each other, in the very bricks of the walls, in the cracking plaster, in the muddy pools of a path and in the grit and coal dust overlying the whole town. Nothing is left vague or allusive, with even the unfathomable and inexpressible nature of human drives, motivations and behaviour laid bare.
As raw and powerful as My Childhood is, My Ain Folk sees a huge leap forward in terms of the director’s technical ability and narrative treatment. The innate truth of the imagery as fragments of memory is more clearly evident in the structure and seemingly more precise and eloquent, the sudden outbreaks of physical violence contrasting and complementing the psychological violence of the deep-rooted rage, hatred, bitterness and regret that has twisted the lives of all those in Jamie’s proximity. Their fragmentary nature and perspective attest even further to their status as scenes seared so deeply into the memory as to leave deep scars and raw wounds, and consequently striking directly into the consciousness of the viewer too, no more so than in the enduring image of a malevolent old woman sitting unmoving in a chair staring into the nothingness of the abyss of her own bitterness and rage.
Raw and powerful certainly, but utterly and irredeemably miserable as well, and the trilogy wouldn’t have quite the impact it has and wouldn’t be that much better than many other examples of British miserabilist cinema were it not for My Way Home. Again, without holding back on the grim facts about all the bumps on the journey of growing up, the third part of the trilogy introduces a necessary and truthful note of cautious optimism, one that shows that there is hope of rising above the hardships and deprivation of an early life of poverty and neglect. There’s something so much more honest in this perspective, one borne out by the self-evident fact that the author has succeeded in becoming a successful artist and filmmaker, but it’s one that most filmmakers of this type of cinema choose to ignore. It’s a perspective that enriches a vital and living piece of work with a deepening authenticity, leading the way towards a refinement and mastery of that technique in Bill Douglas’s only full-length feature film and masterwork, Comrades.
The Bill Douglas Trilogy is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI as a 2-disc set. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. The extra features are on a separate DVD-9 disc. The set is not region coded.
Shot on 16mm stock, it has to be said that My Childhood doesn’t benefit greatly from the upgrade to Blu-ray. A few stray marks and spots are littered around the image, but it is surprisingly clean nonetheless and it’s clear that the original negative has been well-restored. Grain is evidently pronounced and even more apparent in high-definition, dancing around in a couple of scenes like a heat haze, but otherwise the grain structure is handled well. The benefits of the 1080p HD transfer can be seen better in the handling of the 35mm elements of the other two parts of the film, but not by any significant measure. Some slight flickering remains, presumably on account of the telecine transfer of the films, but otherwise the clarity is tremendous, with good definition of black tones and separation from shadows.
The PCM 2.0 48 kHz soundtracks for each of the films are all clean and clear, capturing a natural authentic ambience, any underlying analogue noise well contained by noise reduction. The sound levels are variable, some whispered and over-heard dialogue in My Ain Folk is scarcely audible (and undoubtedly intentionally so), while other passages of dialogue seem extremely loud.
Optional English hard-of-hearing subtitles are included for each of the films.
The same extra features are carried over from the last year’s original BFI DVD release of the Trilogy. Bill Douglas – Intent on Getting the Image (1:03:21) is a fine documentary covering the filmmaker’s personal life and work, which of course are almost inseparable, interviewing close friends, producers of his work and many of the actors in his films. In the only remaining segment of an Interview with Bill Douglas (3:58), the director talks a little about his background and how it found its way into his Trilogy, and a little about the casting for the films. Douglas’s graduation film from the London Film School Come Dancing (13:21) is an accomplished piece of work showing the director’s strengths in characterisation, and here also making effective use of sound to depict an encounter in an out-of-season seaside town between two men of different backgrounds, but who both don’t live by the rules. The picture quality of the film is remarkably good with no real problems.
Rounding off the extras is the usual wonderfully illustrated booklet containing a moving tribute and poem to Bill Douglas from his friend Peter Jewell, some academic technical analysis of the films by John Caughie and Matthew Flanagan, Credits and Cast information, a Biography of Bill Douglas by Louise Milne and a Biography of Stephen Archibald. Additional information, background notes, acknowledgements and credits are supplied for the extra features, with technical information on the transfer.
Detailing an early life of misery and deprivation in the post-war years of a Scottish mining town, the Bill Douglas Trilogy might not present an attractive prospect, but without betraying the grim reality of the circumstances of a young boy with all the cards stacked against him in life or suggesting that there is some kind of nobility or dignity in poverty, the director creates an ultimately uplifting piece of work that affirms the strength of the individual to overcome adversity and grow. Deeply personal, the unique manner in which the Trilogy is filmed cannot help but also make a powerful impression on the viewer, Douglas presenting scenes from his childhood as raw memories, not just in terms of stark images, but in a manner that encapsulates a multiplicity of impressions that strike directly at the consciousness of the viewer with no need for intermediary narrative. Released on DVD last year, the Bill Douglas Trilogy was one of the most impressive sets of the year, and while the upgrade to a High Definition format may not reveal any significant improvement in presentation, this still remains essential viewing.