It starts with a melange of references: The confident brass of the 20th Century Fox theme; a tattered advertisement for 1953’s The Robe, the first feature film shot in CinemaScope; a clip of Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers; and finally, Nat King Cole’s dreamy rendition of “Stardust,” with its luxuriant strings and wistful lyrics. (“And now the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart.”) The shot that accompanies all this beauty tells another story: an empty derelict street in 1950s Liverpool, with rain coming down in a Biblical torrent. This is how Terence Davies’ memories mingle in 1992’s The Long Day Closes, a singularly beautiful nostalgia piece that radiates with love and sadness, and doesn’t extract one type of feeling from another. It’s a film of aching bittersweetness, impeccably realized, past perfect.
Davies has visited his roots on several occasions, first with the three-part anthology Trilogy in 1984, then with 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, and later with 2009’s Of Time And The City, a caustic hybrid of documentary and collage. He isn’t interested in shaping his childhood memories into conventional stories and scenes; he wants to collect the pieces that are most vivid to him, and assemble them as expressively as he can. There’s nothing out of place in The Long Day Closes—in the commentary track to the new Criterion edition, his cinematographer Michael Coulter jokes that the script was so detailed, he didn’t know why Davies needed him—but the result isn’t airless and suffocating like other perfectionist visions can be. The film is far too personal for that.
The Long Day Closes’ forward movement, such as it is, has to do with evoking specific areas of a boy’s life, rather than narrative momentum. Leigh McCormack stars as Bud, an 11-year-old who lives in a modest, austere, but loving home with his mother (Marjorie Yates) and his siblings. There are pockets of his life where he feels alienated and lonely—he doesn’t seem to have much in common with his peers—but there’s a warmth to his home life that Davies captures with radiant sweetness. In sharp contrast, his all-boy’s school is cold and regimented, full of dreary teachers (one offers a five-point lecture on erosion that later doubles as a potent metaphor) and drearier militaristic rituals. He takes refuge in movies, and isn’t above standing in the rain, begging for change, to get his fix.
Cinema history is rife with shots of people gawking at movies, backlit by the light streaming from the projector, but Davies and McCormack make their balcony shot count—partly because it’s a flat-out beautiful image, partly because there’s context to give his movie mania extra resonance. The Long Day Closes is full of Bud, the future artist, observing. He looks at the shirtless construction worker across the street, who triggers a latent stir of interest in the young man; at family scenes that burn into his memory; at the movies that capture his imagination.
Michael Koresky, a Davies scholar and editor/writer for the film journal Reverse Shot, writes in the DVD/BD liner notes that the director considers the period depicted in The Long Day Closes to be the happiest of his life—the era after his father’s death, and before the onset of puberty. And the film presents a stark contrast to the sardonic voice in Of Time And The City, which reveals how much Davies has aged into a period that isn’t to his liking. Davies’ heart belongs to post-war England—he returned to it again recently in his exquisite The Deep Blue Sea—and though his work is always suffused with melancholy, the predominate feeling of The Long Day Closes is one of deep, enveloping love for the music, movies, and comforts of his youth. There’s great sadness in the film, mostly in the knowledge that 40 years have passed between past and present, a fact that seems to be underlined in the opening-credits image of a vase of flowers slowing losing its petals. But mostly, there’s pleasure in following Davies’ nostalgic reverie to a time when the culture and his life were in full bloom.
A wonderful commentary track with Davies and Coulter, who go into detail about the simple techniques Davies used for each scene, from single shots that capture a scene’s essence to the old-fashioned effects used to make Bud’s imaginary world bleed into the real one. Davies’ memory of the shoot is suitably vivid, and he supports the memories evoked in the film with more detailed stories about his terror of swimming, singing with his sister (“I sing everything in the key of zed”), and his understanding, at a very early age, that the hetero world of girlfriends and children was closed to him. Davies’ praise of Yates’ expression in one shot could double for an assessment of the film itself: “Do you have any idea how difficult is is to do something as simple as that and make it so moving?” Other features include a 45-minute episode of The South Bank Show aired before the film’s Cannes première, with a wonderful one-on-one chat with Davies and some behind-the-scenes footage of his childhood being re-created in front of him. (Another great quote from Davies: “I don’t think I’ve got a photographic memory, but I have a photographic emotional memory.”) Critic Colin MacCabe, once head of the BFI Production Board, which financed Davies’ early films, talks about the difficulty in bankrolling and realizing one of the director’s projects. Production Designer Christopher Hobbs, who also worked with Ken Russell and Derek Jarman, talks extensively about re-creating Davies’ past in The Long Day Closes, and playing the role of psychiatrist in extracting details from the director.