One of the main reasons people tell a story, specifically an autobiographical one, is to make sense of their lives. By conforming a basically random series of events to narrative convention—applying order and significance to all the stuff that happens—storytellers can find meaning in experience. The truth, of course, is that no life organically unfolds like a great yarn; to turn a personal history into palatable drama, the writer has to chisel away at the raw material of existence, creating shape where none occurs naturally.
What’s uniquely remarkable about The Long Day Closes, Terence Davies’ 1992 return to his own childhood, is how gloriously disorganized its story feels. While there’s a loose configuration of happenings, a certain poetic logic in how one scene bleeds into another, the film scarcely adheres to any notion of act structure or dramatic payoff. To torture that sculpting metaphor a little more, Davies basically takes a sledgehammer to his adolescence, then closely examines the resulting fragments. Instead of devising an artificial plot, the filmmaker gets stuck on details: the view from his bedroom window, the sound of his mother’s voice, the texture of an old carpet. That is what makes The Long Day Closes one of the great films about memory: It actually mimics the way we process the past—the way certain sights, sounds, and events remain vivid in our minds, even as everything around them fades into oblivion.
Set in rainy, 1950s Liverpool, the movie traces the daily comings and goings of 11-year-old Bud (Leigh McCormack), the youngest child of a working-class Catholic family. The boy’s father died some years earlier, as Davies’ own dad did, but his mother (Marjorie Yates) and older siblings remain strong, loving influences in his life. A work of both nostalgia and deep melancholy, The Long Day Closes approaches early adolescence with a shrewd ambivalence. Fond memories—of a nighttime trip to the fair, of group sing-alongs on winter evenings—alternate with painful recollections of loneliness and bullying. Davies understands childhood as a time of freedom, but also of zero autonomy. Though he lacks any real responsibilities, Bud is at the mercy of the church and school system, forced to endure the cruelties of peers and authority figures. Those who remember their youth as a time of pure, uncomplicated happiness were likely on the giving, not receiving, end of schoolyard abuse.
Bud’s alienation stems at least partially from his burgeoning sexuality. In an early, pivotal scene, the young hero makes eyes with a shirtless male construction worker, an innocuous wink opening a floodgate of scary new feeling. Davies realized at a very young age that he was gay; the filmmaker has spoken and written about begging God to change his orientation, praying until his knees bled from the kneeling. The Long Day Closes zeroes in on an earlier period in the artist’s life, but the first stirrings of desire—and the shame they provoked, exacerbated by the Catholic church—are all alluded to here. During one of the scant interviews on the new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray, executive producer Colin MacCabe illuminates the significance of a scene in which Bud is chased off to bed by his older brother, who’s looking to score with the date he brought home. “Terence shows you that what is making Bud so unhappy,” says MacCabe, “is that he’s not just having to leave this moment, but he’s never going to have this moment. This is exactly what he’s isolated from and excluded from.”
But The Long Day Closes chronicles not just a sexual awakening, but an artistic one, too. “Can I go the pictures?” Bud asks his mother, in the film’s first line of spoken dialogue, immediately foregrounding cinema as a central obsession. The incredible sound design is a sonic patchwork of Hollywood excerpts; snippets of dialogue and full songs—like “Tammy,” from the Debbie Reynolds classic Tammy And The Bachelor—are repurposed from Golden Age studio movies, creating the impression of a running soundtrack in Bud’s head. When school and church fail him, the pictures are always there; the local movie house becomes his sanctuary—a substitute chapel and classroom, where enlightenment and education are transmitted directly from the screen to his seat in the balcony. For Bud (and, by extension, Davies), cinema is more than escape. It’s a lens through which to see the world. Dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles, for whom personal and filmic history sometimes entwine, can surely relate.
Since the release of The Long Day Closes, Davies has turned away from memoir to prestige literary adaptations, including The House Of Mirth and the recent, rapturously received The Deep Blue Sea. But it’s his early, autobiographical work that secured his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest living filmmakers. An early series of shorts, spanning from 1976 to 1983 and retroactively dubbed The Terence Davies Trilogy, established his interest in candid self-exploration. Released in 1988, the two-part Distant Voices, Still Lives focuses on Davies’ deceased, domineering father, and his family’s life after the tyrant dies. Four years later, the director refined his intimate but glancing approach to his own life with The Long Day Closes. Leaping around in time with the fluidity of a wandering mind, it’s a work of staggering formal beauty, informed by emotional (not narrative) logic. While it’d be wonderful to see Davies return to this style of filmmaking, his claim that he’s officially done sifting through the ashes of his own life makes sense. True to its title, The Long Day Closes feels like a final word—the perfect closure for an artist hoping to put the lid on his formative years.