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The way we were
on 29 February 2008
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.