by Allan Fish
(UK 1992 85m) DVD2
Shining a torch into the night sky
p Olivia Stewart d/w Terence Davies ph Michael Coulter ed William Diver md Robert Lockhart art Christopher Hobbs cos Monica Howe
Marjorie Yates (mother), Leigh McCormack (Bud), Anthony Watson (Kevin), Nicholas Lamont (John), Ayse Owens (Helen), Tina Malone (Edna), Jimmy Wilde (Curly), Robin Polley (Mr Nicholls),
Watching Terence Davies’ autobiographical piece was, to this reviewer, rather like flicking through a family album, heralding from a family barely removed from that depicted in the film, in location, time and spirit. It isn’t a prerequisite to be acquainted with the north, or with Catholicism, or remembrances of the 1950s, but it certainly helps. And though those who cannot tick those boxes can and do enjoy and celebrate the film, they do miss something in the translation.
It’s more than merely an exercise in nostalgia, critics both professional and amateur have talked of it being like a stream of the subconscious, and in many ways they’re right, with remembrances of different years and moods taking place seemingly at the same time. Essentially, the viewer is transported much like Scrooge by the spirits of Christmas into the childhood remembrances of one Bud, an 11 year old from the terrace streets of Liverpool. All the expected reminiscences are present and correct, from canings to show the kids who’s boss and visits to Nitty Nora the Bug Explorer to the mind-numbing tedium of assembly and warm welcomes to black men who mistakenly come to the door to begging for a shilling for the pictures and neighbourly gatherings on the doorstep. It really is a different world, and one so dreamlike that one is not surprised when seemingly otherworldly voices ring in one’s ear, reminiscences not just of Bud’s but of our own collective movie-going subconscious. Those with ears to hear will recognise choice sound-bites from Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Happiest Days of Your Life, Meet Me in St Louis, The Ladykillers, Private’s Progress, Great Expectations and, several times, The Magnificent Ambersons, mixed with songs from Nat King Cole, Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds (Tammy, naturally). To this, add several choice snippets of hymns known to anyone who’s suffered through a Catholic primary education, Waltons-like ‘goodnights’, and a friend of the family who lives to do Cagney and EGR impressions. To this add a truly stunning visual sense, which bathes the film in a romantic, nostalgic glow despite actually being very gloomy in its surface aesthetics. Rain, as befits the wet North-West, is never far away, and the reflection of rain patterns on windows on wallpaper in darkened rooms adds a further ethereal touch. And not for nothing does the film open with a credit time lapse shot of a bowl of roses slowly wilting and dying, a simple but telling metaphor for the fleeting nature of those happiest days of Bud’s, and Terence’s, lives.
It’s also interesting to compare it to his earlier Distant Voices, Still Lives, which for all its careful detail and strong performances, was a little too grim in tone to fully satisfy. In Closes Davies mixes this grim exterior with an altogether warmer glow, rather than the cold light of day of the earlier film. It also includes several slow pans that Max Ophuls would be proud of, from a simple yet stunning overhead of the steps and railings of the terraced streets to the perhaps aesthetically more memorable pan through a fairground of Bud holding a perennial candy floss, and there are essences of Dennis Potter and even of the first generation of the interminable Coronation Street in the street sequences. Appropriately perhaps, considering the setting in the British Catholic heartland, it’s a spiritual film in many ways, not merely religiously but of the soul. Gorgeously shot by Coulter, it also benefits from the superb interior and exterior sets of Hobbs, as well as from some exemplary performances from Yates as Bud’s Ma, McCormack himself as Bud, and Malone as a salt-of-the-earth neighbour. It may be slight, it may be idiosyncratic and personal, but it’s magical all the same, and Davies’ greatest film. To paraphrase a hymn heard in the film, “once in Terence Davies’ city…“