I grew up in a working-class family in a terraced house in Merseyside in the 1950s and for me this film is a very evocative and poignant reminder of those days. It's the small details that bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye - the mother sat on the window ledge to clean the sash windows, the Billy Cotton Band Show on the radio, the cinema thick with cigarette smoke - details of a recent past that is now as confined to history as the Crusaders or Roundheads and Cavaliers. Indeed I think the comparisons with the films of Powell and Pressburger are well judged, Terence Davies also presents a vanished world, albeit a slightly less distant one.
From the opening scene we are given the pace of the film (slow and lingering) and we rightly sense that this isn't going to be a linear narrative. The film is shot with a restricted colour pallet, like the hand-coloured photographs popular at the time, to perfectly represent life faded and worn with the passage of time. In many ways the film looks more authentic than the black-and-white kitchen-sink films made in the 1950/60s.
Peter Postlethwaite is wonderful as the father who terrorises the family and even after his death is still a brooding presence, staring down from his photograph on the front room wall. Postlethwaite's face is straight out of the 1940's, flesh stretched taught over the bones of his skull by hard work and rationing. Indeed the whole cast, including Freda Dowie as the wife, is excellent. (Debi Jones as Eileen's friend Micky looks so period that I find it hard to believe she hasn't been spliced into the film from 1940's film clips, as in 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid'.) We are introduced to the family via a series of events - funerals, marriages, christenings - many of which involve a booze-up and a singsong at the pub, this was life before television and the mass media were available to the working-classes. However, the counterpoint to the family's happy public face is the back-story of the father's violence to both his wife and kids. We are offered no explanation for this violence but there are hints that this is not unique - Eileen's friend Jingles also suffers at the hands of her husband.
Other people have commented on the music in the film - I particularly enjoyed the pub singsongs which my wife and I found ourselves joining in with - but I would also like to commend the sparse script, which I thought was wonderfully written with just the right cadences and vocabulary.
This is a great film, unlike any other film of the 1980s (or the 70s or 90s come to think of it!) It skilfully presents an evocation of a time and place but from this also reveals intimate details of one family, one city and a whole social class. Davies was confident enough to do all this without a conventional narrative in which the significance of every event is explained and without the characters needing to spout long speeches.
on 28 July 2007
I have waited fifteen years for this masterful film to come out on DVD, and now, finally, thanks to the wonderful work of the British Film Institute, it has.
I first came across "Distant Voices, Still Lives" when it was shown on Channel Four television in the early '90s. I decided not to watch it - I was only in my early teens at the time - but my parents did, and I occasionally found myself glancing at the television screen to see what it was like. It did not look like a "normal" film. There was something strange, and deeply haunting about its tableau-style images, and its use of music. I put it out of my mind until, a few years later, there was a South Bank Show devoted to the work of its director, Terence Davies, on the eve of the release of his new film "The Long Day Closes". Clips from both films were shown, and I was simply amazed by the beauty of their camerawork and cinematography. Even though I did not know what either film was actually about, I knew that their images would stay with me forever.
Eventually, I managed to watch both films, and they quickly became my favourites. "Distant Voices, Still Lives" is the more sombre and brutal of the two. It is a diptych: the first film, "Distant Voices", was made in 1986, and through a series of impressionistic moments puts us right inside the memories of a family, as they recollect their experiences of their terrifyingly violent father. "Still Lives" was made two years later (but you can't see the join), and puts us inside the same family's memories of the period immediately following their father's death. Two central themes stand out. The first is a portrait of a close-knit, somewhat stifling community, which is at once deeply fond and somewhat critical. The second is a quite stunning use of music - perhaps the best in all of cinema - and especially of popular song, to complement, and counterpoint the action.
The film is blessed with an array of sometimes magical, sometimes disturbing moments. I will mention one: the terrifying scene where the Mother (Freda Dowie) is balanced precariously on the window ledge, cleaning the window, as "Taking a Chance on Love" plays in the background, and she reflects that her husband (Pete Postlethwaite) was "a good dancer" - only to cut to him leading her in a horrific dance of almost ritualized domestic violence. But do not listen to those who say this is a depressing film. It *is* powerful, and sometimes distressing; but it is also full of such warmth, humanity, and good humour that watching it is, in the end, a deeply uplifting experience.
Geoff Andrew's review, which appeared in Time Out magazine in 1998, said of this astonishing film: "It thrills with a passion, integrity, and imagination unseen in British cinema since Powell and Pressburger". I could not agree more. Just one request for the BFI: please release "The Long Day Closes" as well!
on 15 January 2008
I haven't seen Terence Davies's other films but this is undoubtedly a great achievement - and one which, seen again after a gap of fifteen years, feels even more poignant. It may seem odd to say it of a piece so rooted in the specifics of a certain time and place but this autobiographical film also feels like it's the story of Everyfamily.
This may be partly down to the device which helps give shape to the non-linear narrative, namely that the film is threaded around major events - weddings, funerals, Christmas - so we often see the family either in the process of having a commemorative photograph taken or frozen as if doing so.
And given that our memories have a tendency to simplify events over time, the complexity of the experience dwindling down into the information contained in the tangible souvenir of a photograph ("smaller and clearer as the years go by", as Philip Larkin put it), it's as though Davies has deliberately reversed this process in order to defy time's usual softening effects: here is that frozen moment we thought familiar from the snapshot; now the half-forgotten, half reinvented events behind it spring up, vivid and painful again.
But while there is pain in this film's account of the tyrannous father who rules the house, there is joy and magic as well, as we see the family, and the downtrodden mother in particular, gradually recover after his death in the second part. It's also worth saying that Distant Voices, Still Lives is an art movie, but an art movie without that term's negative connotations: there is never, when watching, any sense of frustration at the non-linear narrative. As Davies says in an accompanying interview, the tone is established in the first couple of minutes when, accompanied by a shot of an empty staircase we hear the voices of those who once lived in the place going about their normal routines - ie this story is going will unfold itself in the fragmentary way that memory does, so forget your Robert McKees and Syd Fields when it comes to assessing this film. I don't know whether Davies had him in mind but Thomas Hardy, especially in such poems as The Self-Unseeing and Old Furniture, would be a more appropriate figure to cite.
on 11 January 2008
If you want a traditional linear cause and effect narrative watch another film. This is a luminous autobiographical pastiche of memory and family framed by doors and windows, punctuated by marriages, baptisms and death; private shared bitterness, joys and sorrows.
I was completely captivated from the initial long shot of an empty staircase. This immediately captured the essence of the film. Hearing distant voices but seeing no one:ghosts of memory out of frame.
Punctuated by radio broadcast, songs and unforgettable images of everyday life of the 40s and 50s: mother balancing on a second floor ledge cleaning the outside of a sash window, communal singing down the pub, the family standing photo-ready under the heaviness of their father's portrait set against brown flock wallpaper, a disorientating cut from tears at the cinema to bodies falling through glass.
A sensitive gem of a film. A window onto an unhurried other time. An experience to be savoured with nostalgic regard to the quiet resiliance of humanity.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is a moving portrayal of a Liverpudlian family in the 1940s and 1950s, based on Terence Davies' own family members from which his own presence has been subtracted. It uses a highly stylised approach, opening with long-held shots of the stairs over which we hear unseen voices, but no one enters the frame. This straight away suggests voices from the past, ghosts even, an impression which is confirmed by a 180˚ rotation so that we are looking out of the open front door to see a hearse pull up, on the occasion of the father's funeral. However the father figures in a number of scenes thereafter, revealing a structure that treats memories like playing cards that can be pulled out in any order. This certainly is the way memory works, so one might say the structure bears out the random assortment of moments we draw on when we try to put our lives in some kind of order. The three children are thus shown during the War and then ten years later, by which time the father had become quite tyrannical, having had some semblance of tenderness before, although he was already prone to violent outbursts. The film doesn't wrap memories up in a rosy glow of nostalgia, but contantly pulls the carpet from under our feet, showing the full harshness of life, the grimness of trying to keep things going. Where the dignity comes through is in the way the tableau vivant approach lends gravitas to scenes which might otherwise appear banal. Not only does this style give visual intensity by keeping movement to a minimum, displacing it, if anything, onto the camera in a few well-chosen tracking shots, but it is mirrored by the constant use of songs of the era to carry the emotion of the film, the aspirations of a generation who had few horizons beyond the local community and for whom weddings, christenings and funerals were the events that punctuated life more than now, because there was so little else.
There is a real emotional charge that courses through the film; the eldest daughter on her wedding day crying in her brother's arms that she wants her dad, this brother also in tears on the back step, alone, after his own wedding; the jolly friend, Micky, who marries a Jack-the-lad who really turns out well after all, the fact that one daughter marries well and the other doesn't, the savage confrontation between father and son, the sweetness of the mother, and the ugly violence of the father towards one of the daughters and the mother: all these things leave an indelible imprint. It must surely be one of the most compelling portraits of life of that era that has ever been filmed, and it is infinitely important in our own era that these lives not be forgotten, in their good and less good aspects. As so often, progress appears to be two steps forward and one back. Sexual politics and the interest of life may have improved a hundredfold, but the quiet dignity of many of these lives, and the sense of steadfastness, may also have been partially lost.
Liverpool-born director Terence Davies' 1988 autobiographical film Distant Voices, Still Lives is a superbly evocative homage to his home city, set around the time of (and immediately after) WWII, and is a film that is by turns visually stunning, darkly tragic and just out-and-out hilarious. This film also formed part of a trilogy of autobiographical Davies films, being preceded by Trilogy (1983) and The Long Day Closes (1992).
Distant Voices, Still Lives shuns the traditional narrative form and instead provides the viewer with series of sumptuously shot (courtesy of cinematographers William Diver and Patrick Duval) scenes and vignettes that tell the story of this working class Scouse community, at the centre of which is the family led by a mercurially violent and cruel father (played by the superb Pete Postlethwaite), his wife (another outstanding performance by Freda Dowie), and their children Tony (Dean Williams), Eileen (Angela Walsh) and Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne). Davies' film (as with all his work) is powerfully evocative. The milieu for his film is a time when family bonds were strong and family life was characterised by respect and discipline - albeit, in terms of this latter facet, being subject to unpardonable levels of abuse by the central father figure. As well being peppered with pub group renditions of popular songs of the time, Davies brilliantly conjures up the times by including scenes of sitting on the windowsill cleaning windows, listening to the shipping forecast on the radio, dressing up in suits to go to the pub, scrubbing the floor, listening to the racing commentary and the Billy Cotton Bandshow on the radio, opening the door to the insurance salesman and chopping firewood.
The look of Distant Voices, Still Lives is stunning and original (particularly when compared with most mainstream cinema), being atmospherically shot using muted, pale colours with minimal camera movement, save for the repeated use of slow pans (a style which nicely serves to accentuate the slow pace of life being depicted). The use of music is another outstanding element to the film. In addition to the intoxicating family and group singing sessions in the pub, the dark humour of Distant Voices, Still Lives is evident in Davies' juxtaposing of, first, one of the father's violent outbursts to the tune of the accompanying Taking A Chance On Love, and, second, the sight of his featured family together singing Roll Out The Barrel ('we'll have a barrel of fun') as the bombs of the Blitz explode all around them. Stunning visual sequences abound - for me, one of the most memorable is the slow motion sight of Tony and a work colleague falling off scaffolding before smashing through skylights in a roof below.
Acting-wise, Davies' cast is of consistently high quality - but, in addition to notably outstanding turns from Pete Postlethwaite and Freda Dowie, mention should also be made of Debi Jones as one of the family's friends Micky, whose Scouse humour is, for me, another of the highlights of the film.
The DVD also comes with an illustrated booklet for the film, plus a director's commentary and interviews with Davies and Art Director Miki van Zwanenberg.
Quite simply, an outstandingly original piece of cinema from one of the best British directors of the last 30 years. Remarkably, Davies actually managed to equal (and, arguably, surpass) Distant Voices, Still Lives with its successor, The Long Day Closes.
on 14 August 2013
In many respects quite an engaging film which shows how much, through small incremental changes, our lives have been transformed over the decades so that the past seems like another country.
Davies undoubtedly captures something of the matriarchal spirit of Northern working class life but his film should not be mistaken for reality. There are elements of self-indulgence, romanticism and over-wrought nostalgia here, to be found, for example, in the film's rather too neatly choreographed sing-a-longs where everyone joins in; everyone sings in tune; and everyone knows all the words. Oh if only life were so simple and so harmonious!
Evocative of a bygone era? Yes, if we allow for artistic licence. A piece of social history? To some extent, yes, but the past is definitely seen through sepia-tinted spectacles and nostalgia laid on with a trowel at times.
on 24 October 2008
This WAS my childhood and life as I remembered it. Meeting the family in the pub on a Saturday night and having a good sing song. Pubs closed at l0 o'clock in those days so it was always back to someones house with a crate of ale. Something to get dressed up for on a Saturday night. No juke boxes, no druggies and all the old songs. Still remember lots of the old songs my mother in law used to sing, but if you started singing in the pub these days, they'd only turn to juke box up louder!! No wonder the pubs are losing customers, there's nothing to go out for now, excepted harrassment and druggies. As least in this film they had the wedding breakfast at home - I went to the pictures in the afternoon with my husband because I was only 17 and he 18, and I was not old enough to go in a pub!! then he was sent to Singapore to do his National Service. Married 54 years next week. God I wish those days were still here.
Terence Davies lived just up the road from where I grew up in Liverpool. Brilliant film.
For me this is one of the best British films ever made. The fractured chronology and mesmerising use of song and introspective camera work glorifies the lives of a working class family tormented by patriarchal tyranny and post-war austerity. Davies' ability to convey love and loss through 'distant voices' erodes any sense of sentimentality or mawkish pretension - the viewer is presented with imagery that conveys a positivitism that rivals any of the great Italian neo-realist films makers of the past. The acting is first-class and the sepia tinted cinematography excels at painting a colourful view of a sing-a-long Britain untainted by celebrity egos or superficial consumerism. A masterpiece.
on 4 January 2013
I am a great admirer of the work of Terence Davies and the way he encapsulates the mood of this film by use of appropiate characters is truly amazing. The late great Postelthwaite is truly the focus character in this film. The film could be said to lack direct in order story line but rather captures our minds by sporadically bringing to highlight key family moments. It is only later in life do we come to remember specific moments and Terence Davies never fails in which ones they are. We can all relate to having photographs taken, key moments of weddings, funerals, chores we hated doing. This is a thought deep envoking film not for the light hearted jolly people, nevertheless it strikes a chord when sometimes in life we need to reflect.