The still-life painting used as a backdrop for the opening credits of The Long Day Closes acts as a tonal and aesthetic précis for the film. A vase of roses, mostly pale white with a few bursts of red thrown in, is set against a splotch of illuminated brick wall darkened with soot and grime. The image, drained but still chromatic, hints at the glimmer of hope Terence Davies draws from the final film in his early period of autobiographical works, retaining the dour backdrop of postwar Britain in which the director grew up, but tempering the terror and rage of Distant Voices, Still Lives with moments of undiluted warmth. Yet as the credits roll on, petals begin to appear at the foot of the vase and the flowers sag, indicating how brief this moment of happiness will last.
Not coincidentally, the patriarch who at once forced together and shredded apart the family in Distant Voices, Still Lives is absent from this one, reflecting the death of Davies’s own father when he was seven. The lack of an authoritarian male in the home of the Davies’s avatar, Bud (Leigh McCormack), drastically enlivens the circumstances of the boy’s home life, but it also unmoors the filmmaker’s rigorous formal control from a focal point. Where earlier films featured clearly delineated structures (think the short-combing The Terence Davies Trilogy or the bifurcation of Distant Voices, Still Lives), The Long Day Closes is one undulating mass, a plotless reverie of the period of Davies’s life in which he felt free.
Unburdened by clear narrative divisions, the film likewise takes on a loose, fluid tone, taking Davies’s impressionistic filmmaking to its zenith. In the accompanying commentary track, the auteur speaks of an “emotional geography” to his direction, borne out in hyper-specific production design that grounds aesthetic flourishes that leap from objective fragments of memory to their interpretive effects. Thus, the regimented symmetry of harshly disciplined boy’s schools, with desks in perfectly aligned columns and rows, suddenly fades out as Bud daydreams of a ship rolling on waves beside him, ocean mist spraying his face. Similarly, a Christmas reminiscence of Bud’s family, including a shot of everyone gathered to wait for their youngest member to awake and come downstairs, looks so invitingly lit and composed that only on a second or third viewing does it become clear that the family have, for some reason, been placed on the street for this shot. Subtle fluctuations of light, dissolves that blur the edges between distinct time and place, and tracking shots precisely timed to the film’s evocative soundtrack all complicate the ostensible historicity of the desaturated, bleach-bypassed frame, imbuing it with a nuanced, contradictory individual response.
So personal is the film that some moments, such as the barely perceptible intimation of Davies’s homosexuality or a feverish vision of the Passion when Bud kneels in the school chapel, only make full sense with some awareness of the director’s biography, but The Long Day Closes never gets lost in myopia. That owes a great deal to the performances, which interpret both the objective and subjective details of Davies’s memory with relatability that becomes universal. The fear in McCormack’s face in the presence of bullies and sadistic teachers who dole out corporal punishment solely as a means of enforcing submission is palpable, as are his joy at horsing around with his siblings and his hurt when he realizes that his older, pubescent brothers and sisters are having their attentions turned elsewhere. And if Pete Postlethwaite managed to play his violent, rampaging father figure in Davies’s previous film with enough recognizable humanity to make that type all too real, Marjorie Yates does the same as Bud’s unconditionally loving, playful mother, exuding such kindness and support that she alone could credibly overpower all of Bud’s traumas with her warmth.
Yet the most resonant source of comfort that the film posits for Bud is other films. The first dialogue of the movie is not its own, but a clip from The Happiest Days of Your Life, itself a line that self-reflexively calls attention to the fact that it’s a movie. Throughout, citations and quotations of films dear to Davies’s heart mingle with the equally personal music cues, matched to on-screen situations and actions but also a call to escape from them. In an early shot, Bud stands outside the exit doors of the local theater, asking strangers going in if they will vouch for him so he go in. The shot carries on even when Bud finds a willing “guardian,” continuing to stare through rain at the doors as the frame slowly brightens and the drab exits suddenly glow into rich mahogany as the effect of the feature presentation appears to change nature itself around the protagonist. The apex of this escapism comes, appropriately enough, at the coda, in which a strange, nondescript clip of the moon setting behind clouds fully loosens the film from the bonds of Earth. It’s a final, full retreat into cinema, liberating and terrifying as all growth in Davies’s films, and in life, must be.
Michael Coulter’s cinematography is delicate and graceful, highly stylized, but done so calmly as to sometimes be hard to spot. Criterion’s disc brings out the fullness of his work, as well as that of the tactile production design, to such a degree that those of us previously resigned to watching import DVDs of the film will effectively see it for the first time. An occasional flicker only adds to the reflexive nature of the movie, as if the images were never filmed but projected. The same holds true for the robust lossless soundtrack, which keeps the dialogue crisp, the music full, and the film quotations appropriately tinny, the crackle of old mono as instrumental in conjuring nostalgia for the classics as the content of their audio. Terence Davies has long been overdue for a respectful home-video treatment in this country, and Criterion has outdone itself with this transfer.
The aforementioned commentary, recorded with Davies and Coulter in 2007, is laden with pauses, but when Davies gets going he’s as magnetic as his films, and as nakedly nostalgic and scarred. He fawns over the contributions of his cast and crew, audibly brightens up when the film gets to its Doris Day reference in giddy memory, and becomes intimidatingly furious when thinking of the thuggish peers and teachers whose impact on him is still close to the surface. It’s always suspect to attribute directorial intent to critical observations, but this commentary makes plain that the line that separates Davies and the contents of this film is razor-thin. A contemporary episode of the ITV series The South Bank Show profiling Davies and the then-new film is similarly unvarnished, with the director humble and witty, but also powerfully candid in discussing the dark side of his adolescence. A pair of new interviews with critic/producer Colin McCabe and production designer Christopher Hobbs give further information about the film, and a fantastic booklet essay from Criterion staff writer Michael Koresky and a theatrical trailer complete an extras slate that packs a lot into a small handful of features.
Criterion makes up for the stateside unavailability of Terence Davies’s greatest work with a disc that sets the bar for their 2014 releases.