As the camera glides through a rain-drenched, rubbish-strewn back alley in the opening sequence of The Long Day Closes, aural snippets from a variety of sources (the triumphant horns of 20th Century Fox’s fanfare theme, Alec Guinness’s sinister introductory line from The Ladykillers) fill the air. None of them linger more evocatively than an earful of Nat King Cole’s honeyed “Stardust,” with the lyric “the music of the years gone by” providing a fabulous précis of the art of British writer-director Terence Davies. A poet of memory and recreation whose approach fuses painterly composition and musical flow, Davies addresses the past not with a nostalgist’s doting tidiness, but with a sense of fluid emotions perpetually at play; far from collections of pinned-down poses, his cinematic photograph albums shiver with anger and love, sorrow and hope.
Following Distant Voices, Still Lives as Davies’s exploration of his childhood in 1950s working-class Liverpool, The Long Day Closes is both less dark and more radical than its predecessor. While physical and emotional pain bled out of that 1988 autobiographical portrait as if from an open wound, here the chief feeling infusing the events surrounding the filmmaker’s 11-year-old surrogate, Bud (Leigh McCormack), is one of exaltation. Instead of the continuous threat of frustrated male violence represented by the abusive father in the earlier film, there’s the tender, feminine cocoon personified by the boy’s beatified mother (Marjorie Yates) and a slew of affectionate brothers and sisters. Despite the warm communal setting, however, Bud is essentially a solitary figure, a shy, grave child who, like the filmmaker, experiences the first stirrings of homosexual desire along with the weight of Catholic guilt. (Davies braids the two elements by having the same actor appear as a shirtless bricklayer who responds to Bud’s gaze with a wink and the crucified Jesus who screams during one of the boy’s daydreams.)
It’s this loneliness that’s key to the film’s radical, almost non-narrative style. Pushing the impressionism of Distant Voices, Still Lives toward distilled stream of consciousness, The Long Day Closes posits its pubescent protagonist as a tiny camera absorbing and transforming the reality all around him. A gigantic frigate materializes in the classroom and sails by him as he slips into a reverie, though for the imaginative Bud the sunlight playing on a patch of carpet is enough to evoke magical worlds. Doors, windows, and staircases become portals for the child’s inner landscapes, where a Christmas dinner is envisioned as a Last Supper frieze with Mum in Christ’s seat. Remembrances and fantasies, sights and sounds weaving in and out of each other—is it any wonder that cinema is Bud’s chosen form of rapture? As befits a sustained vision unfurling within the psyche of a movie-mad boy, the densely layered sound design hopscotches between songs performed a cappella by characters and sound clips from classic films (ranging from Orson Welles lamenting the end of dances in The Magnificent Ambersons to Judy Garland crooning “Over the Banister” in Meet Me in St. Louis) in a startling, free-associative tapestry. Despite its critique of the strictures of religion, this is a work of profoundly spiritual, even holy sentiments; more than an escape from quotidian pressures, the movie theater is the protagonist’s—and the director’s—true cathedral.
Davies’s transformative mise-en-scène reaches its apex in the justly celebrated “Tammy” sequence, in which the connectedness of church, classroom, and movie house in the formation of Bud’s being is made sublimely explicit with a series of overhead tracking shots linked by dissolves and scored to Debbie Reynolds’s sugary tones. However, as this epiphanic passage ends with the camera coming to a stop over a tableau of rusted metal, we’re suddenly reminded of an earlier scene in which Bud’s teacher lists the many types of erosion on a blackboard. Life, memory, the sacred beam of light emanating from the movie projector, everything is fair game to the erosion of time. It’s a testament to Davies’s faith in the medium that the stunning closing moments of The Long Day Closes (a three-minute take of the full moon gradually vanishing behind nocturnal clouds) not only confront our inescapable slide into the night, but also locate the emotional truth and cinematic beauty of it. As with the rest of this masterful film, it’s a sequence to meld the uncompromisingly subjective into the transcendentally universal.