What's new again: Terence Davies's Madonna and Child (1980) | Bleader

What's new again: Terence Davies's Madonna and Child (1980)


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Daviess alter ego Robert Tucker kneels in prayer and in guilt.
  • Davies's alter ego Robert Tucker kneels in prayer and in guilt.
Among the many reasons to see Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea (the subject of this week’s long review by J.R. Jones) is that it marks the first feature in which Davies confronts sexual desire directly. The subject runs through all of the great director’s work, though Davies tends to sublimate it into his depictions of moviegoing, family ties, or social convention—and then there’s the high sensuality of his directorial style, which makes a case for cinema being more pleasurable than sex. Davies’s remarkable early short Madonna and Child (1980) helps to explain this facet of his work; you can find it on DVD as part of the Terence Davies Trilogy.

Like the other films in the trilogy, this concerns Davies’s alter ego Robert Tucker, a closeted gay man from a working-class Catholic background. The previous film, Children (1974), had considered Tucker’s traumatic grade school experiences, and the third, Death and Transfiguration (1983), would look forward to his final years. Madonna and Child portrays the central conflict of Tucker’s (and, presumably, Davies’s) adult life, his debilitating guilt over being gay. Davies traces the character’s guilt to his sense of filial duty (in middle age, Tucker still lives with his mother), the pressures of mainstream English society (it’s worth noting that the nation only decriminalized homosexuality in 1967), and, most significantly, the Catholic Church. The movie returns so frequently to scenes of worship that these moments become central to our understanding of the character.

They certainly shape our understanding of his sexual attitudes. In one of the most arresting sequences, Davies cuts from a scene of Tucker making confession to a memory of giving a blow job in a public bathroom. The dialogue of the first scene continues over the latter, illustrating how Tucker can never escape his shame even during moments of apparent gratification. This juxtaposition might suggest an uncomplicated critique of Catholic guilt, yet Madonna and Child isn’t so simplistic in its thinking. In the film’s other most staggering sequence, Davies stages a graceful tracking shot through the accounting office where Tucker works and overwhelms the soundtrack with a church choir singing a Catholic hymn (this is one of the movie’s most autobiographical flourishes, as Davies himself worked as an accountant before entering acting school in the early 1970s). J.R. Jones writes in his piece on Deep Blue Sea about Davies’s use of music to flesh out his characters’ emotional states, and this aspect of his art is fully evident here. The hymn elevates the scene of workplace drudgery, imparts an otherworldly presence.

This complexity is a consistent feature of Davies’s filmmaking, whose associative editing illustrates how conflicting memories must coexist in a single mind (the cuts from scenes of domestic violence to scenes of group singing in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Neon Bible are among the most powerful examples). Davies’s sympathetic depictions of Catholicism counteract the critical ones, suggesting that his art isn’t opposed to sexuality, but that it seeks a more spiritually fulfilling power.

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