The Terence Davies Trilogy (1984)

20 09 2008

Three short films from the great Terence Davies that display the genesis of modern cinema’s most creative and original filmmaker. The first film, Children from 1976, introduces us to Davies’ cinematic alter-ego, Robert Tucker, who struggles under the pressure of a strict private school inhabited with bullies. Quick glimpses of Tucker’s life as a young adult are shown, and they don’t seem to be any better. The next film, Madonna and Child from 1980, presents a new set of emotional struggles for Mr. Tucker. He struggles with his sexuality and his (in)ability to communicate with his surroundings. The final film, Death and Transfiguration, explores the final days of Tucker’s life, while occasionally flashes back to earlier but equally grim moments of life.

The best thing about these three films is that, when stitched together, they do genuinely come off as a single cohesive film. There’s elliptical flashes to the past and to the future in each film, which further blurs any conceptions of what the period is for each individual film. Children mostly depicts its title, children, specifically the childhood of Robert Tucker, but it also features brilliant flashes of the struggles Tucker faces as a young adult. Perhaps all this talk about “struggles” implies that the film is too sentimental or even motivational, but Davies depicts the past with very little fondness. His protagonist never really overcome these struggles, if anything they are all contributing factors to his miserable demise.

Children, to me, is the most curious work included in the “trilogy” as it shows Davies’ rough beginnings. The Davies in this film is not the deeply personal and poetic Davies in The Long Day Closes or Distant Voices, Still Lives. Instead, he is a bit more conventionally minimalistic. Yasujiro Ozu’s influence is stamped over most of Davies’ work, what with the 180 shot/reverse-shots with characters talking into the camera, but this early effort shows a much more cautious (perhaps “mature” even?) attempt at emulating Ozu. The static shots of long hallways and corridors particularly evoke Ozu’s cinematic spirit in a subtle way. Overall though, Children seems more along the lines of Chantal Akerman’s early work, which, in my opinion, is just as nice. There is one small glimpse of Davies’ more poetic sensibility at the very end that reminds one just how masterful Davies is when it comes to musical placement.

The next film, Madonna and Child, is only about half as long, which is definitely beneficial. Considering the consistently bleak tone, it is a bit frustrating to watch a young boy harassed for an extended period of time. Of course, much of the content here is autobiographical so I certainly cannot blame for Davies for being abused so often as a child, but I do think Children could have used a little bit of editing. Here, though, the content is all squeezed together in a tight narrative, perfectly organized by Davies. This is definitely a step in the direction to Distant Voices, Still Lives but probably too emotionally extreme to reach such greatness. In this case, though, Davies has his poetic potential present to combat the perpetual dread of Mr. Tucker. There’s one specifically wonderful sequence in which Tucker calls a tattoo parlor asking if he can get his penis tattooed. The conversation, filled with awkward pauses, is presented over a series of fluid tracking shots of a church.

The final film of the trilogy, Death and Transfiguration, may be the darkest in terms of content, but Davies himself is as confident as ever in the director’s chair. The narrative reverts back to Tucker’s childhood days, which are (seemingly) recounted on his deathbed. There are also glimpses of Tucker’s final moments with his mother, which are called back from the bulkiest part of the previous film. There are a few beautiful and musical moments that bring to mind Davies’ most accomplished work. Overall, this is probably the best film of the trilogy, in a technical sense, but watching an old man die after a miserable life is a difficult thing to get excited about. It is executed beautifully, of course, but considering Davies own relation to the Tucker character, it is a bit bizarre to see him die in such a violent (if honest) way.

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2 responses

20 09 2008
gaston monescu

Those screen shots are so breathtaking, I really need to get around watching the BFI releases of this trilogy and The Long Day Closes.

I didn’t know you were a Davies fan, going as far as calling him the most creative and original filmmaker today! That is very good to hear. They are going to play his new film, Of Time and the City, in a month or so for the film festival out here. I am very excited.

21 09 2008
dan

I agree, Davies IS absolutely the most important director today.

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