One of the greatest movie musicals ever made. One of the greatest movies about the experience of childhood ever made. One of the greatest autobiographical movies ever made. One of the greatest memory movies ever made. One of the greatest movies ever made by a director who happens to be gay. One of the greatest movie documents about growing up gay ever made. And when all of these come together in one movie, it is, for me, simply one of the greatest movies ever made. On my list of 6, the least important are the last two. The points made are of interest to those who care about such things, but one’s appreciation of the worth of the film does not depend on them.
Performances throughout are superb, down to the smallest role. Leigh McCormack gives one of the greatest performance I have ever seen by a young actor, rivaled perhaps only by Christian Bale in Empire of the Son and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life. According to IMDB, he has never been in another film. According to director Terence Davies, McCormack wanted to grow up and become a fireman. As Bud in this film, he is the central character and stand-in for the director as a young boy. Marjorie Yates plays his mother in the other central performance. Although she has made few movies, she seems to have been in lots of British television series over the years. (Only in this last viewing did I note that someone in passing and barely audibly addresses her as Mrs. Davies.)
Yesterday I watched the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of the film. It looks absolutely gorgeous. I had suspected that it was, even from the washed-out tapes and imperfect DVD I had seen over the years. The colors of the film are blues, grays, blacks, and browns along with dull yellows. Oddly beautiful. Occasionally there is a startling splash of color: a vivid green door, a bar of red soap. Red brick walls covered with black soot, with only a bit of the red showing through.
Davies and others in the interviews and commentaries stress that this is a “true” story. It is his family, the house where he lived, the street outside, the school, the church (which is the exact same one attended by Davies as a child). The house and street having been destroyed some years ago with no photographs of it, the recreation was based on detailed discussions Davies had with his production designer. It all looks totally “real.” It is not. There are conscious slight exaggerations, and both Davies and his production designer comment on to what and why. However, among other things (see above), the movie is a brilliant depiction of what daily life was like in a poor household in Liverpool in the 1960s.
I could carry on at great length about the use of extant music in the film, but part of the great pleasure is encountering songs and being surprised by them and how they are used. Sometimes they are used in their original form. Sometimes the mother may be singing a popular song of the time while she is going about her daily affairs (many of the songs used were favorites of the director’s mother). Sometimes groups are singing songs at neighborhood parties. Sometimes it is just the music in young Bud’s head. This may suggest to you both the British television and the Hollywood musical versions of Pennies from Heaven as well as other of Dennis Potter’s works. Yes. But I think the use of songs here surpasses even what Potter did. Sit back and relax and let them wash over you. Let the whole experience of this film wash over you.
The plot? Well, what plot? I guess what plot there is depends on whether you are viewing the work as the story of a boy over several years or as the story of one day in his life in which he remembers. If it is the former, it is about a boy moving into a new school and being bullied and made generally unhappy. If the latter, it is about a boy wanting money to go to the movies, getting it, and discovering that the friend he wanted to go with has gone off with another boy, making Bud most unhappy. I think it is both timeframes welded into one. I’ll always remember Dr. Egbert Sydnor Ownbey (yep, that’s his real name) who taught me Shakespeare in college talking about the two time sequences in Othello. One major aspect of the story makes sense only if the action of the play takes place in a brief span of time. Another main thread makes sense only if it is spread out over several weeks or even months. He thought the great genius of Shakespeare was to balance these different time frames so admirably that it matters not to the viewer or reader. I think Davies does something like that with this film. Ray Bradbury once wrote a short story called “All Summer in a Day.” I think he would have liked this movie.
Certainly the film is about erosion of the human spirit. When you see the film, you will understand this clearly because of the way the writer/director underscores it with a classroom lecture. And pay attention to the voiceover in the last sequence in the coal cellar. You see it throughout, the bullying.by peers and authority figures, and the little unkindnesses barely noticeable to those doing them. On this viewing I begin to understand that at least some part of that erosion is perhaps natural. Like wind. Water. And, of course, the mere (!) passage of time on our souls. But I will stick to my guns that the movie is about reclamation as well. Reclaiming the past by dealing with it. And in this case, the reclamation has resulted in the creation of a great work of art. Thank you, Terence Davies.