Terence Davies specializes in outsiders; his characters are often solitary, melancholy figures contemplating a world of both immense sadness and intense pleasure. It’s a perspective this autobiographical filmmaker clearly shares, and one that extends to his place in British cinema. Thanks to a low profile that’s at once scrupulously self-maintained and a product of his industry’s never having known quite what to do with him, Davies has not achieved the household-name status he so richly deserves, despite widespread admiration from peers and critics (he’s “regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living film director,” wrote Nick Roddick in the London Evening Standard in 2008). Still, this modest Liverpudlian has, with only six features and three shorts over a thirty-seven-year career, staked out a unique spot in his national cinema, creating films that defy easy categorization. Do his wrenchingly personal works fit within the long tradition of British realism or stand in contrast to it? Are they of a radical or conservative temperament? Do they convey despair or elation? The answer—all of the above—speaks to the films’ rich, strange, and emotionally complex beauty.
Though Davies earned his reputation mainly for the poetically rendered autobiographical films he made in the first sixteen years of his career (from 1976 to 1992), his cinema has since come to encompass many forms, including adaptations of American literature (John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bible, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth) and classic British theater (Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea) and documentary (his idiosyncratic, mostly found-footage Of Time and the City). In addition, he’s written a novel and produced radio plays, including one based on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The unapologetic classicism of much of this later work sits surprisingly comfortably alongside his more experimentally minded personal films—all center on social outcasts, and all use their narratives as a way of playing with the nature of time on-screen. Nevertheless, it’s Davies’s early work that bears the true mark of his singular vision. During those years when he was unwaveringly focused on the particulars of his own experience—his difficult family history, his tortured relationship with his sexuality, his fears and hopes and dreams—he burrowed to places in himself that most artists wouldn’t dare go.
The last of ten children, only seven of whom survived infancy, Davies grew up in working-class Liverpool, the introverted son of a kind mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, and a tyrannical father, who died when he was seven. Davies has said that much of the abuse his father unleashed on his family was so unimaginable as to be untranslatable to the screen (“I couldn’t put in many things that happened, because nobody would have believed it. He was so violent,” he told me in a 2012 interview). This cruel man is a central figure, if at times as a specter, in Davies’s first five films: the shorts Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983), which constitute what is now titled The Terence Davies Trilogy; Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); and The Long Day Closes (1992). In the hauntingly austere, black-and-white trilogy, the first part of which Davies made when he was thirty and studying acting at Coventry Drama School, he reimagines himself as the closeted Robert Tucker, whose life he chronicles from abject childhood to miserable adulthood to lonely death. (In 1983, Davies continued to dramatize the life of this surrogate character in his novel, Hallelujah Now, a devastatingly candid study of a fragmented mind.) In Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies removes himself from the picture, focusing on the lingering effects of his father’s violence on his mother and three of his siblings. But he returns as protagonist in The Long Day Closes, the culmination of this period of unbroken cinematic introspection, a mesmerizing memory piece on Liverpool in the 1950s that presents a subjective, impressionistic experience of childhood.
Concentrated as it is on a fleeting era in his life—the years that Davies has called his happiest, after the death of his father and before the acute terrors of puberty set in—The Long Day Closes is all about the moment as it’s experienced. It offers a cinematic lushness—of cinematography, set and sound design, music—that constitutes a sort of constant ecstasy. Davies’s personal obsessions, forged during childhood, are on majestic display here: the songs of Doris Day and Nat King Cole, the escape of the movies, the enveloping comfort of friendly neighbors, the camaraderie of holiday celebrations. “Everything seemed fixed, and it was such a feeling of security that this is how it will be forever, and I really believed that,” Davies said of this period. Yet there’s an underlying sadness encroaching on those joys, an awareness that it all must end. In The Long Day Closes, we’re essentially seeing the world through the eyes of a child alive to its sensations, yet whose astonishment is bridled by the wisdom of a middle-aged man aware of its disappointments. The effect is an almost unbearable poignancy.
Davies may seem to be entering well-trodden generic territory in relating the experiences of young Bud (played by onetime actor Leigh McCormack, who has the mournful stillness of a Renaissance angel), living in harmonious grace with his beatific mother (Marjorie Yates) and jocose older siblings (Ayse Owens, Nicholas Lamont, and Anthony Watson). In outline, it could sound much like such other coming-of-age tales as Lasse Hallström’s My Life as a Dog (1985) and John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987). But unlike those more straightforward films, Davies’s unfolds in a highly unconventional narrative that collapses past and present; rather than a story, the film offers impressions and traces of childhood. Davies similarly forsook strict linearity for the trilogy and Distant Voices, Still Lives, but The Long Day Closes is his least orthodox, most visually and aurally layered work, a reminiscence with no discernible beginning or end, as given to flights of fancy as doses of reality. This, like his earlier work, is hardly the stuff of bleak kitchen-sink realism, despite the authentic working-class milieu; in fact, Davies has said that he finds the famed British New Wave films of the late fifties and early sixties, such as Look Back in Anger (1959) and This Sporting Life (1963), “dreary” and “drawn from the middle-class point of view.” Davies’s films seem made to attest to his belief that “working-class life was difficult, but it had great beauty and depth and warmth.”
With its purposeful lack of breadth, The Long Day Closes is all depth. Focused on a short period in a boy’s life, the film is less about events than the profundity of a child’s inchoate feelings. One is likely to take away from the film not a crucial narrative “moment” but an image or a sound—the fragment of a song, the odd audio clip from a movie wafting across the soundtrack like a radio transmission from some deep psychological recess. Still, this is not an anything-goes work that’s been assembled in the editing room; Davies always meticulously plans every camera angle and movement, cut, musical cue, lighting effect, and sound bridge as early as the first draft of the screenplay, and rarely deviates from this blueprint. To date, Davies has made only two films that move in strictly chronological fashion—The Neon Bible (1995) and The House of Mirth (2000)—although even these play with duration and temporal ellipses. He told me, “It’s not interesting to say this happened, then this happened, then that happened. When people remember, they remember the intensity of the moment and nothing else.” The intensity of the moment is what defines The Long Day Closes, which is as engrossed in the nature of time itself as in its maker’s own past.
Davies announces that preoccupation with time, in characteristically subtle fashion, in the film’s opening credits. The Long Day Closes commences with a beautifully composed still life of a bowl of roses, illuminated against a shadowy nothingness by a shaft of dusty sunlight. Though unrelated to the rest of the film in any literal way, the image is a natural one if we know of Davies’s devotion to T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a group of poems concerned with the mysteries of time and memory, first published together in 1943. The first, “Burnt Norton,” opens with an evocation of mortality and decay, symbolized by “a bowl of rose-leaves.” For three and a half minutes, Davies allows the entire credit list to play out over what seems like a static image. But if we look closely, we notice that the roses are slowly wilting, an effect achieved through a series of nearly imperceptible dissolves. Finally, dead petals are scattered across the table. The film has scarcely begun, but already Davies has made us aware of our experience of time. There is a quiet message here: Look closely and patiently. This beauty will surely, sadly pass.
“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past,” writes Eliot. Following this, past, present, and future all become one in The Long Day Closes. Sometimes Davies races across time, as in an extraordinary series of overhead shots, set to Debbie Reynolds’s wonderfully saccharine 1957 hit “Tammy,” that, in uniting church, school, and movie theater, the three sacred spaces of Davies’s childhood, economically dramatizes an indeterminate period—a visual evocation of an entire epoch. At other moments, he elongates it, as in an audacious scene where the filmmaker holds his camera on a rug for a minute and a half (a cinematic eternity) while sunlight dances across its patterns—a moment of magical mundaneness that requires a childlike concentration from the viewer. Visual and aural boundaries are diffused: the camera drifts down from a movie theater balcony and we’re seamlessly edited into a carnival scene, set to Richard Rodgers’s “The Carousel Waltz”; then, on the breeze of the Irish folk ballad “She Moved Through the Fair,” we’re just as effortlessly carried from this jubilant space to a moment of melancholy repose in which Bud’s mother tearfully reminisces about her father. Images of joy and despondence are equally ephemeral.
Much of the sadness of the fleeting moment in The Long Day Closes stems from twelve-year-old Bud’s burgeoning realization of his homosexuality. In the first of many scenes with Bud perched at a window, the boy spies in his neighbor’s yard a shirtless, muscular bricklayer; in a flash, his gaze changes from passive curiosity to desirous admiration. The man catches his eye and winks back in mock flirtation. Bud’s eyes slowly peel away from his object of beauty, and he sinks back from the window frame, his face registering a cruel new emotion: shame. This is a primal scene for Bud—he has understood his difference, his “wrong” feelings. (And it echoes a more eroticized instant from Children, in which the preadolescent Tucker fixates on a man showering at a public pool.) Placing this moment within the first ten minutes of the film underlines Bud’s aloneness; though his postpatriarchal family life is depicted as calming and caring, we realize that Bud is also eternally emotionally isolated from it, experiencing these pleasures at a remove. He looks both fascinated and dispirited watching his older brothers as they court young women, preparing to ascend to the sorts of domestic rituals for which Bud is not destined. This makes it all the more pointed when an image of Bud contemplating the blossoming love between his brother John and his girlfriend (set to a romantic snippet from the soundtrack to Vincente Minnelli’s aching Meet Me in St. Louis) is followed by a scene of Bud on his knees asking Christ’s forgiveness for his sins. At school, things are far more harrowing. Bud’s difference also manifests itself as the culturally unforgiveable sin of effeminacy, which makes him prime fodder for a trio of school bullies who taunt him as a “fruit.” Furthermore, he receives no kindness from the authoritarian teachers and headmasters, who embody the sort of patriarchal intimidation absent from his home life since the death of his father.
The misery associated with Bud’s encroaching homosexuality must be put in context for contemporary viewers, who might expect films about gay identity by gay artists to offer narratives imbued with a sense of pride. Davies, who has been controversially vocal about his abiding discomfort with his sexuality (“I’ve always had the greatest difficulty accepting being gay,” he told me), grew up during a particularly oppressive era in British history. In the 1950s, the government was cracking down on men suspected of homosexuality, and because a number of famous figures (including politician Lord Montagu and actor John Gielgud) were among those arrested, the witch hunts increasingly made the nightly news, and thus brought the notion of homosexuals as diseased and corrupt into homes such as Davies’s. Though not as outwardly grim as the trilogy, which more explicitly evokes the shame Davies associated with gay sex—in a series of random, often sadomasochistic encounters—The Long Day Closes intimates a difficult path for Bud. And indeed, for Davies, terrible days lay ahead: “My teenage years and my twenties were some of the most wretched in my life. True despair. Despair is worse than any pain.” This period led to his leaving both Liverpool, which offered little creative outlet, and the Catholic church, which provided no succor for his pain.
The Long Day Closes thus evinces an odd wistfulness for a time that was for Davies presexual and for gay men everywhere deeply repressed. This complicated nostalgia and Davies’s negative depictions of sex in the trilogy make him a problematic figure within discussions of the New Queer Cinema movement of the late eighties and nineties. Though he’s sometimes mentioned alongside the gay British filmmakers Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien, who were directing around the same time (Jarman’s first feature, the homoerotic tale of martyrdom Sebastiane, was made in 1976, the same year as Davies’s Children), Davies’s work refrains from engaging with sexuality in any outwardly political or militant way, marginalizing him within this already marginal realm. Because The Long Day Closes is his “happiest” film, Davies may seem to harbor affection for a time marked by conservative values, or at least one uncomplicated by matters of a sexual nature. But such black-and-white interpretations have never felt appropriate for Davies’s work, which is always invested with a profound, discomfiting ambiguity—the darkness and the light. The Long Day Closes is one child’s experience of the world: we see through his eyes only. What’s on the horizon—the sadnesses and freedoms alike of adulthood—must remain unknown.
There are no absolutes in The Long Day Closes; the future and the past are hazy. The film begins and ends with enigmatic images of doors, thresholds to indeterminate time and space. In the opening, the camera, unmoored to any character’s point of view, egged on only by the pensive strains of Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Stardust” (a song that sounds like memory itself), drifts down a demolished, rain-soaked Liverpool alley of the mind. According to a sign, this is Kensington Street (where Davies grew up), fallen into blue disrepair. We float as though down a lazy river, until the camera gradually turns and enters the wide-open front door of an abandoned row house, its battered, drenched staircase beckoning inside; after a dissolve, we are in the past, this long-neglected, boarded-up place now brought back to sunlit life, with Bud perched on the stairs.
At the close of the film, it’s Bud, not the viewer, who passes through a door. The camera stays at a remove as the child enters a mysterious portal in his basement, beyond which is a void as pitch-black as outer space. Here, between ghostly snippets of Orson Welles’s melancholy narration from The Magnificent Ambersons, a film about cultural and familial disintegration, and the voice of Martita Hunt’s eternally deteriorating Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations, a school lesson from earlier in the film, concerning the scientific properties of erosion, returns via voice-over. Like that bowl of roses, all of this serves as a reminder that with time comes decay. Is Bud entering the terrifying future or cocooning himself forever in a safer past? Either way, he’s growing up. And this exquisite world that Davies has just shown us is too beautiful to last.