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Distant Voices, Still Lives [VHS] [1988]

4.1 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

Product details

  • Actors: Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne
  • Directors: Terence Davies
  • Producers: Jennifer Howarth
  • Format: PAL, Colour, Full Screen, Dolby, HiFi Sound
  • Language: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 4:3 - 1.33:1
  • Classification: 15
  • Studio: Virgin Video
  • Run Time: 80 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0010X92OQ
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 110,996 in DVD & Blu-ray (See Top 100 in DVD & Blu-ray)
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Product description

The second film in Terence Davies's autobiographical series (TRILOGY, THE LONG DAY CLOSES) is an impressionistic view of a working-class family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, based on Davies's own family. The first part, DISTANT VOICES, opens with grown siblings Eileen (Angela Walsh), Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Tony (Dean Williams), and their mother (Freda Dowie) arranged in mourning clothes before the photograph of their smiling father (Pete Postlethwaite). Soon after, the family poses in a similar tableau, but for a happier occasion - Eileen's wedding. While relatives sing at her reception, Eileen hysterically grieves for her dad, and recalls happy times of her youth. Tony and Maisie's memories, however, are more troubled. Davies intermingles and contrasts scenes like the family peacefully lighting candles in church with the brutal man beating his wife and terrorizing his young children. In STILL LIVES, set (and filmed) two years later, the siblings are settled in life, but not all happily. For Eileen, relief from her drab existence comes only when singing at the pub. With his skillfully composed frames and evocative use of music in place of dialogue, Davies creates a lovely, affecting photo album of a troubled family wrestling with the complexity of love.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By G. E. Harrison TOP 500 REVIEWER on 29 Feb. 2008
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
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'.
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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.
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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.
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