Sunday, 30 January 2011

AFED #30: The Terence Davies Trilogy [Children (UK, 1976), Madonna and Child (1980), Death and Transfiguration (1983); Dir. Terence Davies

By his own admission Terence Davies is a director whose films polarise opinion. For some they are unremittingly bleak, making "Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis", to quote the director himself.

But for others - and I'd include myself amongst them - through their exploration of pain and grief, memory and loss, they achieve a deep and powerful catharsis. There can be few film-makers with such single-minded conviction that through the healing power of art we can find atonement.


Davies began his directorial career with the Trilogy, three monochrome autobiographical shorts shot over a seven year period. Depicting the life of the director's alter-ego, Robert Tucker, at various junctures, they also chart Davies' evolution as a film-maker towards the distinctive style of later work such as Distant Voices, Still Lives.

The first, Children, tackles Tucker's difficult school days, the death of his thuggish father from cancer and nascent awareness of his homosexuality. In the second, Madonna and Child, the mature Tucker is ravaged with guilt over the dichotomy of reconciling these feelings with his deep Catholicism. Finally, in Death and Transfiguration, an elderly and dying Tucker is compelled to confront his own mortality.

The axis of the Trilogy is Tucker's relationship with his mother, which Davies describes as "the great love affair" of his life.

Throughout all three films the narrative jumps backwards and forwards, so that it's never clear whether the protagonist is recalling earlier events or projecting his thoughts to what may happen in the future, or even if certain scenes are pure fantasy. This plasticity of Tucker's reality is further enhanced by having all events take place in the present; no attempt is made to historicise the setting according to when in Tucker's life it's taking place.

Many of the hallmarks of Davies' later work are present from the beginning, albeit sometimes more affected. In Childhood long panning shots and stilted, almost Pinteresque, dialogue show a rawness of technique.

Yet there's also something highly personal in a way that recalls the Free Cinema film-makers of twenty years earlier. At one point the camera holds the view from a bus window for nearly two minutes as it travels through the streets of Liverpool. Indulgent yes, but not detrimentally so. Like all his films Davies' city of birth is as vital a character as any human one.

Even though there's a certain hesitancy the director's debut shows a strong awareness of mise-en-scene. Wherever possible Davies utilises ambient lighting, particularly from windows, in a manner heavily inspired by the painter Vermeer. With Madonna and Child this develops into a pronouncedly gothic approach with echoes Tucker's torments, exquisitely capturing actor Paul O'Sullivan's angst-ridden face. His life is one of duality; the placid surface of domesticity and a banal office job contrasted with furtive gay encounters which may be purely of his imagining.

Death and Transfiguration is, understandably, the most assured of the three films. Davies' budget could even stretch to buy the rights to use Doris Day's 'It All Depends On You' for the opening scene of Tucker's mother's cremation. Throughout the power of music to express, expunge and transmute raw emotion is a vital component - from children singing Christmas carols, to classical composers like Bruckner and Shostakovitch, to sentimental popular ballads - it fulfills a choric role in the classic, Greek tragedy, sense of the term.

The crisis of faith that began in the second film has led to an abandonment of God; a painful, acrimonious split. An aged Tucker (played by Wilfred Bramble, in his last role) lies in a hospital waiting for the inevitable; his mind thrown back to his childhood, his mother's last days and the still implacable anguish of his homosexuality. It's an agonising portrait of the fate that awaits us all.

Trilogy has been interpreted as an study of clinical depression and it's certainly a classic account of an outsider. Because of its sobriety and the sparse, elliptical style the themes probably need to resonate to fully appreciate it, but if you understand where Davies is coming from then Trilogy is hauntingly poetic.

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