Distant Voices, Still Lives Review
Terence Davies’ début Distant Voices, Still Lives is 30-years old and a wonderful new 4K transfer is released in cinemas this week. Terence is doing a few Q&As too, at Manchester, Cambridge and Liverpool (of course). It hasn’t dated a bit, thanks in part to being a period piece, but it’s original and unique. Effectively a double-bill of two short films filmed two years apart, it’s an intimate depiction of a typical working-class family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool, encompassing mundane daily chores and the big events that are life’s milestones. Emotional extremes are set against bittersweet nostalgia, with a few good old British sing-a-longs; enough that it could qualify as a musical.
Based on Davies’ own background, he explores events in a free-wheeling fashion. The hypnotic, dream-like result is a masterpiece of British cinema, a unique film that uses memory not for a plot, but for a feeling, a place or a time. Context and order are almost rejected; they are merely for the convenience of understanding ‘why’, which isn’t important.
While made up of Davies’ own memories and family anecdotes, there is no character to represent a young Terence, so we don’t have a base of reference for the plot, time or that sense of why. His naturally lit, economic style is full of graceful, detailed long shots invested with accuracy and realism. Conversely, characters speak with false, rhythmic dialogue as if there is an unseen narrator, romanticising events, embracing the essence of cinema to convey an undeniable truth. This is a film that could only be a film and is a stunning début, considering the consummate skill and ego-less critique of the director’s own history (he does so even more impressively in his Trilogy).
This approach could easily appear indulgent, a device for the director to hide behind. No matter how well performed a sequence is, is it meaningless without a clear conclusion? The captivating genius of Distant Voices, Still Lives is in the small character moments and juxtaposition between the scenes. It is a beautiful film. A tearful visit to the cinema blends to an abstract view of two men falling slowly through a glass roof, both accompanied by Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. A moving festive scene has a different effect for Christmas Eve and then Day. Children running to a shelter during a wartime air-raid, the dramatic tension undercut by a more inconsequential moment when they reach safety. Davies has mimicked the way we relate memories together and by inviting us into his past so openly, it reminds us of our own. The detail of the time is so finely done anyone could find something of value in this film, even if it can be a tough watch.
Davies’ depiction of life is grim, but as with his more recent Deep Blue Sea, so too there's hope. The mother (Freda Dowie), obviously an interpretation of Terence Davies’ own, has an indomitable, inspiring spirit. There’s a wonderful moment that could represent the tone of the film when she takes a risk while cleaning windows that makes her daughter gasp, but it’s a risk she probably took every week. After all, windows need cleaning.
Dowie is the anchor of the film and Pete Postlethwaite the terrifying shadow over all of them as the violent father. He embodies the generosity of Davies’ writing with moments both kind and cruel (the Christmas scenes in particular) that couldn’t be a consistent memory from one emotional person, but a realistic depiction of a very complicated man who would let his temper get the better of him. There are easier, lighter scenes between the kids (Lorraine Ashbourne, Angela Walsh and Dean Williams) as they go out with friends (including the hilarious Debi Jones), sing a lot and eventually marry (the back to front nature of the film doesn’t necessarily show the lives in order). The same sort of characters pop-up in Terence Davies’ next film, The Long Day Closes, as he continues to refer back to his upbringing.
Terence Davies doesn't get a fraction of the attention he deserves, despite critical success, and so this rerelease is more special than most. It's recognition of the indelible mark he made so long ago. Having won the International Critics Award at Cannes in 1988, Distant Voices, Still Lives continues to endure and was voted in a 2011 Time Out poll to be the third-greatest British film. Terence doesn’t put his heart and soul into the film; it is his heart and soul and few others reflect their director with such honesty. Davies is to cinema what Alan Bennett is to literature, an auteur who relies on his own rhythm and when that matches ours, it is sublime.