Terence Davies’s autobiographical trilogy of short films comes to DVD from the BFI. Review by Gary Couzens.
Many people hate their day job – if maybe not the people they work with. The worst part is, short of winning the lottery there’s no way out until you hit retirement age…and then (on average life expectancy) three quarters of your allotted span has gone. There must have been plenty of people like Terence Davies, immured as a shipping clerk by day, pouring what survived of his soul and sensibility into creative writing out of hours, with no guarantee that anyone else would see the results. However, Davies did get out, and became one of this country’s finest film directors. In his trilogy of short films, he depicted a man like himself, only one who didn’t get out.
Davies worked that day job (and another as an accountant’s book-keeper) for twelve years, before enrolling at Coventry Drama School and becoming an actor. In the meantime he had written the script for Children, the first film of his trilogy. He had sent it everywhere and it had been universally rejected. After seeing an article on the BFI Production Board, he sent the script there…only to have a reply from Mamoun Hassan, the head of production and an offer to make the film for £8500…and Davies would direct. He had never directed before.
Children (44:25) was made in 1976, shot in 16mm black and white. It came in under budget, despite resistance from its crew to this new – and by his own admission, technically very ignorant – director. One exception to this was his DP William Diver, who became a regular collaborator, either behind the camera or as editor. Children does has its rough spots – partly due to the budget, partly due to inexperience – and it is overlong. But what is striking is the assurance on display. Davies wanted to make the film look like Vermeer in black and white, and with Diver’s help he succeeds, despite the limitations of 16mm: many shades of grey and textures in the blacks, much use of natural lighting, particularly from windows.
The film introduces us to Davies’s alter ego, Robert Tucker. For most of the film we see him as a fourteen-year-old boy (played by Philip Maudesly), but there are – in what would become a Davies trademark – slips in time (flashforwards) to Robert in his early twenties (played by Robin Hooper). Quiet and sensitive, close to his mother, Robert is bullied at school and called a “fruit”. Robert has early signs that he is gay, when he watches a man (played by a young Trevor Eve) have a shower after a swimming lesson. Onetime Liver Bird Elizabeth Estensen appears as a nurse.
After making Children, Davies enrolled at the National Film School (they’d rejected him first time round) and Madonna and Child (27:03) was made as his graduation film. Robert (Terry O’Sullivan) is now middle-aged and working as a shipping clerk. He lives at home with his now elderly mother, and leads a shadowy double life as a gay man which conflicts with his Catholic upbringing. With this film, Davies’s style became more concise. Again, there’s little plot, more a series of character vignettes, held together by music more than narrative logic.
Madonna and Child is the most explicit of the trilogy – which originally earned an 18 certificate on its first release, now downrated to 15. Few will forget a startling sequence which counterpoints a long camera pan inside a church displaying the Stations of the Cross, with a choir on the soundtrack…and also a telephone conversation where Robert asks a tattooist if he will tattoo his genitalia. Compared to that a sequence where Robert fellates a pick-up in a public toilet (shot from behind as his hands knead the man’s buttocks) is hardly remarkable, though certainly strong stuff for 1980, especially when such comparitively mild films as Nighthawks, made two years earlier, were considered almost beyond the pale. Davies’s work conflicted with the ideology of the time, where homosexual men were expected to be glad to be gay, open and defiant. Davies’s portrayal of a deeply lonely, closeted man with a somewhat masochistic sexuality didn’t sit well with many people though no doubt there were many men like Robert, then and now.
After leaving film school, Davies scraped together the money to make the third part of the trilogy, Death and Transfiguration (25:02), which he made in 1983. As he had been in the earlier two films, William Diver was the DP and for this film the editor as well. The film begins with Doris Day’s song “It All Depends on You” over shots of a funeral – Robert’s beloved mother. The rest of the film cuts between three timelines: Robert as a child (Iain Munro), memories of Robert (played again by Terry O’Sullivan) with his mother (Jeanne Doree), and sequences of Robert as an old man (Wilfrid Brambell). The elderly Robert is rendered speechless from a stroke and is looked after in a nursing home. Davies has said that the Trilogy is highly autobiographical, and this is no exception: it’s a projection of an end he foresaw and feared for himself. In real life, Davies has an outlet in his creativity, and had the combination of luck and tenacity to pursue it. Robert has no such outlet and his is a lonely, circumscribed life. You can see this in O’Sullivan and Brambell’s faces. Brambell, in his last acting work (he died in 1985), is remarkable in a role with no dialogue.
Davies’s style is well developed now, and Death and Transfiguration does not have the occasional missteps of the earlier two films. It moves easily between past, present and future, following the logic of memory rath er than chronology. Music – often popular songs of the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era – plays an increasingly important part, and Davies’s eye for an image is not in doubt.
No doubt some people will find the subject matter of these three short films depressing and it is certainly not recommended for children or the easily offended. But Davies looks at a wasted life – which could have been his own, we sense – with an unsparing eye, avoiding sentimentality. The result is certainly moving.
Although the Trilogy is complete in itself, it could be seen as the first part of a larger trilogy, in which Davies continues to mine his own life and that of his family. He continued, this time in 35mm colour, with Distant Voices Still Lives (itself a diptych) and The Long Day Closes.
The Terence Davies Trilogy is released by the BFI on a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only. The films can be selected individually from a menu or you can Play All. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for the feature and all the extras including the commentary.
All three films were shot in 16mm in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Although remastered in high definition from restored negatives, you can expect grain and you will get it. But you also get a much wider greyscale than I remember seeing (admittedly my only previous viewing was on Channel 4 in the late 1980s) and good shadow detail. This is I suspect as good as these films will ever look outside a cinema.
The Trilogy had mono soundtracks on all three parts. The expected solution would be for the BFI to transfer this as a Dolby Digital 2.0 or 1.0 soundtrack. However, they have done better than this and have provided an uncompressed Linear PCM track. This has the unfortunate side-effect of picking up some sound-editing defects in Children but pays dividends in the latter two parts. Davies and his sound crew have become bolder in their use of sound in these two films and the dynamic range is much wider. The hissed “Bariolé!” towards the end of Madonna and Child will give you goosebumps. A real beneficiary is the music, which sounds tremendous.
Davies provides a commentary, leading us through the making of the films and pointing out particular autobiographical signposts. He’s quite open about the flaws, in particular certain shots in Children he now considers dull – though he thinks the film as a whole is “not bad for a first-timer”. By the time he reached Death and Transfiguration, he feels he had learned his craft.
Also on the disc is an interview with Davies conducted by Geoff Andrew (15:34). This took place at the Rex Cinema, Berkhamsted, as was its counterpart on the Distant Voices Still Lives disc – probably the same session. As before, Davies is an engaging speaker and Andrew’s questions are intelligent, even if much of this duplicates information in the commentary. Finally, there is a trailer for Davies’s new film, Of Time and the City (2:14), which the BFI are releasing in cinemas later in 2008.
A booklet contains a short essay by Derek Jarman, “A Different Kind of Cinema”, which was first published with the VHS release of the Trilogy in 1994. From the same year, this time from the pages of Sight & Sound, is “The Child Within” by Jennifer Howarth, an account of Davies at film school. She met him there and went on to produce Distant Voices Still Lives. The remainder of the booklet comprises a Davies biography as well as credits for the three films and for the DVD.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum