on 16 May 2009
I first saw the film on Channel Four many years ago and it stayed in my psyche from then on. I read the book as well and again the story affected me deeply.
This film isn't easy watching at all, it's raw, painful, upsetting, depressing but yet ultimately uplifting too. It is not going to win any awards for furthering the cause of Gay Pride - it paints too bleak a picture of homosexuality (all sexuality?) for that. What it does do however is lay before us the life of one man and the consequences of choice denied, decisions made; later regreted and a life lived in fear.
The film is highly critical of organised religion and Catholicism in particular - anyone who knows anything about Terence Davies will understand that.
Buy this film and watch it with an open mind and be so grateful that you have more options and opportunities than the poor soul featured. Incidentally, Wilfred Brambell's performance in the last part of the trilogy is brilliant.
Terence Davies made the first of these films in 1976, while the other two shorts followed in 1980 and 1983. They form a remarkably original work, in that the takes are sometimes very long - a sequence on a bus lasts nearly three minutes, in which we just watch a mother and son sitting there as the Liverpool streets pass behind the window. This is accompanied by a striking cor anglais solo - apparently the funds were lacking to have something more upholstered - and then the mother starts to cry, with no dialogue at all. This is fairly typical of the way scenes are handled: the pacing is slow, and dialogue kept to a minimum, often voicing the most obvious sentiments, but you feel the characters struggling to say much more than this, but held back by awkwardness or the inability to put their feelings into words. The first part is by no means lacking in bold shots and setups, surprising the viewer with glimpses and insights you wouldn't get now. The main character, Robert, aged 14, looking with interest at a young man in a shower is such a moment, both sensitive and poetic. Films 2 and 3 are equally daring in certain juxtapositions, a key scene being where a man has a phone conversation with a tattooist about having one done on his genitals. We see the man - Robert as an adult - sitting in church as the camera pans round paintings of the stations of the Cross. It is very effective, and the cumulative impact highly affecting. The other original element is the fact that the chronology is mixed up, each film showing the character at one age in particular, but with glances forward and back. The simplicity of the scenes allows this to work very well, with the added feature that different actors are used in each film. This was no doubt partly dictated by the large gaps between the shooting of each film, but Davies mixes it up further. Thus the 14-year-old Robert is played by Phillip Mawdsley, alongside a 23-year-old version, but in the later films he is taken over by Terry O'Sullivan in mid-life, while also appearing as an old man and aged eight. The mother likewise changes in all three films, but has only one incarnation in each. The photography is highly evocative, tender, often heartrending. For anyone who enjoyed Distant Voices, Still Lives, it is a must. It has to be said that there is an emphasis on the harshness and sadness of life, but transcended through the film which makes everything seem precious as well. Images tend to be fairly static, as in the later work; he apparently wanted it to look like Vermeer. But this throws into relief a fight between two boys, or Robert being chased by bullies. Derek Jarman describes it in his introductory article as 'luminous and stark'; the booklet contains a further essay and biography, and an interview with Geoff Andrew on the DVD gives a touching sense of the man behind the images.