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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 22 August 2015
Terence Davies is a director I had not discovered until today: I will be watching more of his work.
This film is an evocative story (mainly autobiographical I understand) of working class family life in Liverpool. In its exploration of the harsh conditions of the times pre-war to the fifties, it is authentic and very moving, depicting the loves and loyalties in a family as children grow and make their own way in life; there is no holding back on the bleakness of poverty nor the frustrations of married life which occasionally erupt in violence, but one is left with the sure feeling that music and song bring release and that humour wins through. Beautifully acted and thoroughly recommended!
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on 15 July 2016
It was good but if the film was put in the right sequences of the story such as chronological order, because some parts were "mix and match". However, if it was put in order then I would of given it a 5 star rating.
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on 29 October 2013
This beautiful film represents the real quality of British cinema at its best. Honest well crafted art with no reliance on the brashness from the American imitations that seem to dominate the box office these days. Lets have more of this.
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on 16 January 2014
Beautifully filmed, caught the last 10 minutes on television and thought I must add that to the collection. Very poignant and funny at times, very Scouse.
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on 10 August 2016
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on 19 August 2013
I enjoyed viewing this after a gap of many years. I had forgotten about this story and will watch again.
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