Review: The Terence Davies Trilogy

Terence Davies trilogy screenshot

Year: 1983 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

While it would be fair to say that the so-called “Terence Davies trilogy” (consisting of short films Children [1976], Madonna and Child [1980] and Death and Transfiguration [1983]) at many times feels like a thesis for his later feature films Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) (which, along with “Trilogy,” make up an autobiographical trilogy of their own), it’s also undeniable that these are the most provocative films that I’ve seen from Terence Davies so far; Madonna and Child, in particular, feels downright raunchy in a couple of different instances. 

This collection of short films is certainly the most outwardly homosexual of Davies’ early works, as well as the most critical of organized religion; the concept of “Catholic guilt” is skewered here with an efficiency that other commentators and satirists since have only been able to aspire to. It’s clear that Davies resents the role that the Church played in the repression of and shame toward his gayness that he felt throughout his childhood and early adulthood, and this trilogy serves as nothing but a straight-up indictment of the very pillars of Catholicism itself. It’s no wonder why it took Davies so long to finally make his feature-length debut film; despite the classical scores and slow pace and “traditional” tone of these films, this is some truly subversive and anti-establishment stuff.

Throughout all three films, Davies plays with time in an almost Truffautian way to paint an extremely moving portrait of a life run aground by religion and socio-political conservatism. On one hand, Davies’ style feels about as far from the brashness and outward rebellion of the punk movement (which came of age, flourished and faded away entirely during the space between Children and Death and Transfiguration) as it’s possible to get, and yet, on the other, Davies more effectively tears down the social constructs of sexuality, masculinity and gender roles than even the most political of punk rock songs; he does so not by raging against the machine or calling for anarchy or getting attention through violence, but by putting us into the shoes of someone who’s life was dominated and ruined by these constructs. As with Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, Davies makes his point startlingly clear through quiet empathy rather than loud rebellion.

The “Terence Davies trilogy” is currently streaming as part of Criterion Channel’s retrospective of his work, and these films seem to be criminally under-seen based on their logs on Letterboxd. I would encourage anyone who values empathy in film or has an interest in queer cinema to check them out ASAP.

Language: English
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Rating: Not Rated

Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Terry O’Sullivan, Wilfrid Brambell, Sheila Raynor, Phillip Mawdsley, Iain Munro

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