The autobiographical films of Terence Davies are not simply nostalgic journeys into the director’s past; they are piercing insights into the filmmaker’s turbulent early life. While Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Long Day Closes (1992) and Of Time and the City (2008) are feature-length depictions of the people and places he knew growing up, the three short films that comprise The Terence Davies Trilogy – Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983) –are the earliest looks at the filmmaker’s life, focusing on the solitary figure of Robert Tucker. Just as François Truffaut showcased the adventures of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), his surrogate self, across five films, the character of Tucker (played by a range of actors across the three films) is a stand-in for Davies.
Children focuses mostly on the boyhood of Tucker (Phillip Mawdsley) at school and home, with these environments offering little refuge from his bullying classmates or his violent father, respectively. The film spans two time periods, starting in childhood but frequently flashing forward to show Tucker as a young man (Robin Hooper), who, like his childhood self, is introverted and mostly silent, but as an adult is diagnosed with depression. Tucker, both boy and man, can barely relate to the people around him, with the notable exception being his mother (played here by Val Lilley), a figure idolised by Tucker in all three shorts. In contrast, Tucker’s father (Nick Stringer) is portrayed as a bitter, unwell man, the type of fierce patriarch also seen in Distant Voices, Still Lives.
One of the few respites from Tucker’s childhood troubles is a bus ride he takes with his mother, mostly shown in a long take of Tucker at a window seat, gazing out of the vehicle and silently watching the world pass by, both entranced by what he sees and separated from it. Tucker’s mother is seated next to him and presented in profile while he faces away, but we soon cut to a front angle of her as she begins to sob, a sadness later explained when she is shown suffering intimidation and violence at the hands of her husband. The father may be ill, but he is nevertheless a forceful presence in the house, ruling the home with an iron fist. Unlike Truffaut’s put-upon-yet-carefree Doinel character in Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Tucker has little, if any, respite from the gloom at home or the misery in school. As the next short shows, even Tucker’s fantasies do not allow him to escape the drudgery of his daily existence or free him from the religious guilt that weighs on his mind.
When we catch up with Tucker (Terry O’Sullivan) in Madonna and Child, he appears significantly older than the young adult glimpsed in Children, and seems free from the stifling conformity of his early life at school: the second short introduces him boarding a ferry that is leaving Liverpool, suggesting he has moved on, able to do what he pleases and go where he wishes because he has shaken off the doubts and traumas that plagued his youthful self. However, we quickly see that Tucker’s change in circumstances does not appear to have alleviated his suffering, as he is shown sitting tearfully on the ferry; via another time-jumping structure, it becomes clear that some pain from his recent past is impinging on the present moment.
Tucker works in a bland office environment and barely communicates with those around him, either at work or elsewhere, while the saintly image of him held by his mother (Sheila Raynor), on whom he dotes, is contrasted with the shame he feels when seeking male companionship, a side of his life that he keeps from her. Religion looms larger in this film, with Tucker struggling to reconcile his faith with his desires, a conflict visualised through some stylised erotic encounters – presumably, his fantasies – presented in a dark void, but also including one sequence in which Tucker has a nightmarish vision of his own dead body in a coffin. The longing felt by the school-age Tucker in Children has increased with his older self in Madonna and Child, but these desires do not appear to be fulfilled, and his faith gives him guilt rather than solace, making this adult depiction of Tucker an unhappy man.
Tucker’s story concludes in Death and Transfiguration, which feels like a culmination of the themes from the previous films, collecting a lifetime of dreams and memories, and then bringing them vividly to life. This third film, perhaps the most structurally complex of the three shorts, cuts between three time periods: Tucker at school (now portrayed by Iain Munro), in new scenes from his childhood; the middle-aged Tucker (O’Sullivan again), living in contentment with his ageing mother (Jeanne Doree here) until her hospitalisation; and an elderly Tucker (Wilfrid Brambell) in hospital. Is the old, infirm Tucker looking back on his childhood and middle age from hospital? Alternatively, is the middle-aged Tucker wondering if his fate in old age will mirror his mother’s situation in hospital? For Tucker, though, his sickness in hospital would be compounded by the fact that he would be alone, with no-one to visit him.
As in Children, Davies effortlessly moves between different periods here, sometimes cutting on similar actions or shots to smooth the transitions across time. For instance, Children has an exterior shot of the adult Tucker turning a corner (presumably about to enter his flat), which cuts to an interior shot of Tucker as a boy closing the front door of his house, while Death and Transfiguration features a cut from a middle-aged Tucker holding a cup to an elderly Tucker holding a teacup and saucer. There is also a movement through time within the same space, when a shot of the elderly Tucker, seated in a wheelchair in a hotel corridor, moves away to a window and then back to the corridor, revealing the middle-aged Tucker in the same place, waiting to visit his mother. The shifts through time feel seamless, as if the elderly Tucker were sifting through his dreams and remembrances, the people, places and times blending together in his mind.
Also of note is that the flashbacks to Tucker’s childhood in Death and Transfiguration do not allude to the pain he suffered as a schoolchild in Children, but instead show him as seemingly at peace and quite literally angelic. In addition, it is noticeable that the bullying boys and intimidating male teachers of Children are absent from the school in Death and Transfiguration, replaced by the strict, but more benign, religious figures of the Sisters – perhaps suggesting that the past events selected by Tucker in this film are tinged with an element of imaginary, the past as he would like to remember it; or maybe it indicates that the older Tucker in this third short is finally able to recall the best moments from his childhood.
As with the previous shorts, religion features heavily in Death and Transfiguration: a sunlit but cloudy sky opens and closes the film, suggesting a divine or ineffable presence bringing light to a murky world, and Christmas features heavily in the childhood and elderly time periods. The depiction of religion changes across the three shorts: in Children, it is an ever-present ritual followed automatically, but seemingly not troubling the conscience of the younger Tucker (at least, not until the latter part of the story); in Madonna and Child, the older Tucker is wracked with Catholic guilt about the homosexual desires that clash with his religious beliefs; in Death and Transfiguration, the observance of the Christmas period suggests a comforting familiarity, a tradition that brings people together.
Looking back on these three early short films from Davies, it is remarkable how they laid the groundwork for his two features that followed, while also still feeling like fully formed works. These shorts are striking in that their brief runtimes are able to depict a complicated life in great detail. As with Davies’ features, it is as if the images and sounds in these shorts are taken directly from the director’s mind: his vision of real events is clear and precise, whilst also feeling dreamlike in presentation. The stories in these shorts show the power that the past can have on an individual – how traumatic memories and guilt-ridden fantasies can potentially burden a person rather than liberate them. Davies does not flinch from portraying the dark side of life in these shorts, but while there is an unforgiving frankness in The Terence Davies Trilogy, the harsh realism is tempered with filmmaking magic and poetry.1
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The Terence Davies Trilogy (Children | Madonna and Child | Death and Transfiguration) (UK 1976, 43 mins | 1980, 30 mins | 1983, 23 mins)