Introduction to the screening of The Long Day Closes (1992) at the Melbourne Cinémathèque on December 11, 2019

Terence Davies has frequently been called Britain’s greatest living filmmaker, yet when I mention to my non-cinephile friends that I’m writing a book about him – or that I was doing this introduction – they tend to look at me with a mix of curiosity and blank indifference. Most of them have simply never heard of him. I mention this not to poke fun, but because I think it illustrates the great conundrum of Davies’ career – the enormous chasm that exists between the critical acclaim and respect he has accrued and his relative public obscurity. Davies occupies a unique place in British film history – he’s an outsider in a system he has frequently criticised. As I wrote in my profile of Davies for Senses of Cinema, his “work is so personal and tonally singular as to be an anomaly within an industry he sees as far too concerned with aping American tastes and interests.” 

Davies has been uncompromising in his pursuit of his vision and has described himself as a spectator, not a participant in the world. His films are difficult to describe or categorise. I also think this is their greatest strength and why they will endure. Davies has only made nine films over a 40-year career, and many of these have been a real struggle for him to get off the ground and secure funding support for. The fact that these films exist at all feels like a miracle.

And what films they are.

After last week’s screening of Davies 1988 debut feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives, a friend, who was watching it for the first time, remarked that it was unlike anything she had ever seen before. And she was right. While Davies’ films can feel familiar in terms of what they draw on from both British and Hollywood film history, they are, as my friend noted, wholly unique film experiences – they look different and feel different to most other films, as if they have been assembled by someone reinventing film language to suit their own purposes; someone taking its raw materials and sculpting it into something new.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

I think there are a few reasons for the strangeness and newness and difficulty of Davies’ films. 

1. Because they are so personal;

2. Because they refuse and reject what is easy and what is popular;

3. Because they provoke contradictory feelings in the audience. 

It is impossible – and futile, I’d suggest – to try to disentangle Davies’ life from his art. Davies earliest films – the three medium-length shorts that comprise what we now call The Terence Davies Trilogy, and his two autobiographical features, Distant Voices, Still Lives and tonight’s first film, The Long Day Closes – are deeply personal and not always comfortable, easy viewing. Davies has said, “I make films in order to come to terms with my family history,” but I think he also makes them to come to terms with himself. I’ve seen both Distant Voices and The House of Mirth many times, but last week’s screening was actually the first time I’d seen them in a cinema, and I was struck anew by how deeply personal they are – both exquisitely beautiful, yet miserable and confronting, like being asked to look too long at someone’s raw, bloody wound. Each of Davies’ films feels like a personal excavation and exorcism; they feel like they are born at some great personal cost.

Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart and Eric Stoltz as Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth (2000)

I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing Davies twice and on both occasions I was struck by how open and generous he is – not only in talking about his filmmaking but about himself. Each time he has given me details about his family life – some, which I’ve shared and published, and others, which I’ve kept for myself – that made me feel he was sharing secrets with me.

Nevertheless, the key details of Davies’ autobiography are well known. He has spoken of them from the start of his career, but in case you don’t know them, here are the vital statistics. Davies was born in 1945, in Liverpool, into a working-class Catholic family. The family lived in a terrace house on Kensington Street, demolished in 1961, but which he resurrects in various forms across his first films, and most spectacularly in The Long Day Closes. 

Davies’ is the youngest of ten children, seven surviving. His father like the father in Distant Voices, was a violent and abusive man. Davies has described him as a monster. That was a faded black and white photo of the real Tommy Davies and his horse on the wall in last week’s film – an absent presence throughout most of Davies’ work, even those films that are not ostensibly about his, or his family’s, life. The Long Day Closes unfolds in the period after his death when Davies was six-years-old, and the period prior to most of the traumas of adolescence – a time Davies has referred to as the happiest of his life. 

Davies is gay, but he has quite openly admitted to struggling with this fact most of his life. We see the beginnings of this crisis, the mix of desire and shame, in tonight’s first film, and the stirrings of his eventual break with the Catholic Church when he was 22, when he simply walked out in the middle of Sunday mass and never looked back.

Cinema became Davies’ new religion. After a lifetime watching movies, it delivered him to the world as a filmmaker with his numerous gifts fully intact. Davies left school at 15, and then spent ten years working in an office as a clerk for a shipping company, a time he has called a period of “soul-crushing misery” before he entered the Coventry School of Drama, with aspirations of being an actor. Later, Davies studied at the National Film School where he began work on the three short films that would become The Terence Davies Trilogy. These austere yet emotionally powerful black and white films announced him as a singular filmmaker of some sophistication despite still having his training wheels on. He has admitted as much, saying, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it from what felt right.” That instinct has served him well for 40 years. Davies’ films strive for authenticity of feeling above all else. He has said, “I remember not just what the fifties looked like, I remember what it felt like, and that’s a different thing.”

Davies’ key themes and particular aesthetic were all present in the shorts, and then developed spectacularly in Distant Voices, Still Lives – the personal narrative, the violent father, the adoring mother, the rhythms of everyday life, his love of music and Hollywood musicals, his adherence to emotional logic over narrative continuity, his obsession with time and memory as non-linear and elliptical, the powerful and abiding sense of time and place, and the riddle of ‘family’, which he has described as “the source of everything that is wonderful and terrible in our lives.” 

It’s unsurprising that a filmmaker so concerned with translating his own personal history into images is also concerned with how to best convey the remembered nature of those images. Of memory, Davies has said, “You remember the intense moment, not the things around it,” and indeed, Davies’ images have the sense of blooming suddenly and uncontrollably, as if rising up and out of the mind then melting into something else. Davies has translated that intense feeling through aesthetic choices that recur across his entire filmography – fragments and juxtapositions; slow pans and tracking shots; elegant dissolves. 

Which brings me to The Long Day Closes, which opens with one of the most extraordinary series of dissolves in cinema history.

Like Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes unfolds like a memory. While Davies is a physically absent figure in the earlier film (although we are never unaware of his camera), in The Long Day Closes, made four years later, he returns as a corporeal form to his own story. Eleven-year-old Bud (played by Leigh McCormack) – Bud was Davies’ family’s nickname for him when he was young – is a Davies double. 

The Long Day Closes is a tapestry of Davies’ childhood memories that brings the interior spaces of that childhood, vividly, back to life. Bud is introspective, so even the most exuberant memories have a hushed tone, but the film is always rich on the emotional details of his inner life. Bud, like Davies, is a spectator. We see the great love between the mother and her youngest son; Bud’s pleasure in watching his sister and her friends congregate in the house and get ready to go out on a Friday night, the way his older brothers’ lives both unspool with and without him. We look straight on at Bud’s exuberant cinephilia. We see him reckoning with God and with his sexuality and with growing up. 

Bud (Leigh McCormack) is drawn towards the light

It’s a complex representation – for while there is nostalgia and some idealisation of this past as better than what came before and after it, The Long Day Closes, like each of Davies’ films, is completely devoid of sentimentality. There are certainly moments of joy, but also an undercurrent of turmoil revisited, and of more still to come. 

The Long Day Closes is a film made by a cinema lover for cinema lovers. It has a dreamy quality from the start, illuminated by the stardust of the projectionist’s lamp. Davies depicts cinema – and the beautiful picture palaces that share it – as an endless source of lushness and ecstasy. It delivers Bud moments of spectacle, escapism, and joy – a true counterpoint to the dank, greyness of postwar Liverpool. 

Cinema becomes Bud’s salvation. It was clearly Davies’ – a refuge, a communal and religious experience that transformed the limitations of his everyday reality and then transformed his whole life.

I hope you love this film.