Distant Voices, Still Lives
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Winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, Terence Davies feature debut heralded one of Britain s finest filmmaking talents.
Loosely based on the director s own family and upbringing, Distant Voices, Still Lives presents an evocative account of working-class life in Liverpool, England during the 1940s and 50s. Births, marriages and deaths and an expressive use of music provide the underpinning for a film that is beautiful, heartbreaking, resonant but never sentimental.
Now regarded as a masterpiece of British cinema, and boasting a startling performance from Pete Postlethwaite (Romeo + Juliet, Inception) as the head of the family, Distant Voices, Still Lives has been treated to a glorious 4K restoration by the British Film Institute.
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I think I saw it twice more - the Music Box in those days used to regularly do adventurous double features, and I believe that I saw this once alongside DAYS OF HEAVEN, and another time paired with WINGS OF DESIRE. While those two films are visually masterful and strikingly crafted films, neither matches for me to the greatness that lies in Davies' film. An "autobiographical memory film" it's been called - whether by the director or by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum I can't recall now, and this is as good a shorthand as any. Proceeding in a stream-of-consciousness manner - but smoothly and with transactions that are edited as elegantly and musically as the awesome soundtrack, the film is divided into two parts, filmed two years apart.
Part 1, "Distant Voices" is dominated by the brutal Father (Pete Postlethwaite in a role that should have made him a star and earned him a ton of awards) who rules over Mother (Freda Dowie, just as impressive) and their kids Eileen, Tony and Maisie with a quick temper and quicker fists and boots. But his brutality, like that of many bullies, is tempered often by a softer side, and in a moment made all the more striking on a second viewing, Eileen weeps and longs for him after death at her wedding - as Maisie calls him on his brutality and it's clear that most agree entirely with the negative assessment. It's Father's sickness and death, and Eileen's wedding that form the centers around which the other memories - beatings and dances, songs in pubs and services in churches - pivot.
Part 2, "Still Lives" shows the kids all grown up and marrying - and the males of the younger generation for the most part showing behavior sadly similar to that of the dead Father. On the whole this second half is a little "lighter" in tone, largely because the widowed Mother, now free of her tyrant, has gained some measure of happiness, and because there are moments that show some hope for the future for most of the younger generation; some of the women are a little more assertive, there are cracks appearing both in the patriarchy and, subtly, in the power of the church. A larger chunk of "Still Lives" is set in pubs and the songs are generally brighter and more poppy, less bluesy and mournful; at the same time, the threat of violence and the seemingly natural domineering attitude of most of the men is never far away. A brief scene involving the daughters' friend Jingles, who has married an angry and probably abusive man who won't let her have more than a minute's time with her mates, is particularly telling.
Then there are the songs. The film is wrapped up in music, ranging from English folk song to early 50s pop songs, Hollywood musical numbers - sung by the cast members - to Ella Fitzgerald and in the powerfully elegiac fadeout at the end, Peter Pears singing "O Waly Waly". The music isn't for the most part used ironically, though I suppose certain juxtapositions (Ella's "Taking a Chance On Love" appearing while Mother is recounting why she married Father - he was a good dancer - and then continuing while he savagely beats her and leaves her crying on the floor) might seem so. Rather, it's through the songs and the feelings expressed in them that these poor people who have very little material wealth - and often little emotional support - get through life, and it's especially poignant and moving I think that even most of the tyrannical men seem moved in their souls by song. When Father is singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" while grooming a horse, it's hard not to feel that he's not altogether lost.
All of this adds up to a powerful emotional document of family and community ties, of a time and a place that clearly still overpower the director - who hasn't lived in his hometown for decades but has made 4 of his 6 films about his life there. I'd like to say more about the striking photography, in particular Davies' use of subtle earthy colors and the palpable textures of the rooms and streets, and the mastery he has over filtering light - through curtains, glass, pints of beer, etc - but unfortunately, in watching this old VHS, not much of the visual splendor of the film came through. I still feel like I can remember how it looked on 35mm, and I've looked at stills, but the American VHS release of this just doesn't do any justice to the film at all. As there's no telling when or if this will ever get released here on DVD, I guess I really have to go for the BFI R2 issue of it, which I probably will soon. I won't be waiting years to see it again.
The film then is in my opinion one of the very greatest of all time, and one of my two or three favorite English films. Terence Davies is perhaps the most consistently great director working - he hasn't yet made a film that I wouldn't call a masterpiece - and I sure wish he was better known and found an easier time in making films. As I've said, the visual and aural splendors of this great work don't really come off well on the VHS, but I'm giving this a top rating anyway. If you have a local brick-and-mortar store that has this for rent, or you want to get a cheap used copy here, I think it's still worth it for the virtues of the film that survive even in this poor transfer. And there is talk of Criterion releasing this film, or a Davies collection, in the near future. But if you've got a multiregion DVD player and want a better copy now, the BFI edition is almost certainly worth shelling out for.
The film tells the story of a family going through growing pains in 60's Liverpool. The family, consisting of a domineering father, submissive mother and three conflicted children (2 girls and a boy), discovers their inner selves, not wholly independent from outside influence, within the many years that proceed the films outset.
The film is broken into two sections. The first section (dubbed `Distant Voices') shows the early years within the family unit. The father is brutal and aggressive and a wholly undesirable human being. Centering on the wedding of his daughter Eileen, the films first half gives us a stunning portrait of familial relations and the way our own perceptions of a persons worth can be manipulated by our own emotions. Despite the violent nature of their father's life, his death is clouded with pain and remorse as the children, most notably Eileen, long to be reunited with him. His domineering qualities were only a facet of his person, and this is seen as the family's own personal feelings fluctuate with the wind. The second section (`Still Lives') shifts the depressive tone of the film on its head by showing a sense of change administering itself in the lives of those portrayed. There is still a dominance of male over female, but the women of this new generation (the children now grown, married and finding independence) have a more assertive persona. The vicious cycle of their parents is not out of arms reach, but the film shows a sliver of hope that it is being pushed a little further away.
There are a few aspects of this film that deserve to be given due note. Pete Postlethwaite is one of them. With fervor and conviction, he embodies the monster at the core of the film and delivers a marvelously layered performance. You can feel the years of upbringing that formed the man he is and you can sense in him the small shifts that make him human. The entire cast is very good here, but he certainly stands out. The direction also deserves recognition. Terence Davies is a master painter here, delivering a stunning film, visually and emotionally. The film's many frames move with ease to deliver to us a moving portrait of life. The directorial flourishes here, the beautiful uplifts and effective use of song really add beautiful layers to the film.
I've often told friends that this film is what `How Green Was My Valley' would have looked like had a director like Ingmar Bergman written and directed it.
The emotional pull of `Distant Voices, Still Lives' continues to draw in the audience well after it has ended. It is assertive and yet beautifully reserved enough to allow you the chance to become a part of it. You can see the passion and the love that went into the film. Despite the many horrific aspects of the film (and the emotional abuse committed on the screen), one can see a level of respect given to the place and time and the people presented here. You can see that this film MEANS something and so in retrospect it means something to us.
Now, it needs to have a DVD release ASAP!