Distant Voices Still Lives Review

Terence Davies was born in 1945 in Liverpool, the youngest of ten children born to a Catholic working-class family. After twelve years working as a shipping clerk and an accountant, he took a place at Coventry Drama School where he wrote the script for his first film, Children, which he made in 1976. That formed part of the Terence Davies Trilogy, which was completed by Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983). These three autobiographical short films, shot in black and white 16mm, trace the childhood, adulthood and old age of a gay man. They established Davies as a notable new name in that underfunded and oft-beleaguered arthouse sector of British cinema. The obvious comparison was with Bill Douglas, a Scot eleven years older: both were gay men from deprived backgrounds who made autobiographical trilogies of short or midlength films, made in black and white. (And while we’re at it, could we have Douglas’s work on DVD please?)

Impressive as Douglas’s films are, they are tales of bleak endurance and overcoming of adversity. Davies’s films can be just as painful as they deal with paternal brutality and neglect and emotional alienation – but what is also evident is the warmth and compassion, and humour. This became evident when Distant Voices Still Lives was released in 1988. It’s one of the great British debut features of the last quarter-century.

Distant Voices Still Lives forms the middle section of a larger Davies trilogy, with Children, Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration being its first part and the later The Long Day Closes completing it. Arguably, Distant Voices Still Lives isn’t a feature at all but a diptych of two mid-length films, with the title card for Still Lives appearing on screen forty-four minutes in – chapter 8 of this DVD. What’s more, the two films were shot two years apart with largely different crews.

While the earlier trilogy was in black and white 16mm, now we’re in 35mm and colour, bleached out so that greys and browns dominate. (The DPs were William Diver and Patrick Duval, the former also the film’s editor.) Distant Voices depicts the family (only three children here for reasons of dramatic licence), their cruel father (Pete Postlethwaite) and their mother (Freda Dowie). In Still Lives, we follow the events after Father has died. Davies’s storytelling method is not linear: he slips back and forth in time, mixing memories both painful and joyful, shot through with sharp Scouse humour and knitted together with radio broadcasts and popular songs of the time. The picture we receive of the Davies family is solidarity and humour and emotional supportiveness – particularly among the women – in the face of adversity. There are enough pub singalongs to qualify the film as a musical. Davies knows exactly what Noel Coward meant by the potency of cheap music: these show tunes and popular songs, regarded as disposable entertainment at the time, are a vital part of the film’s effect. And if you don’t have tears in your eyes as Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears perform “O Waly, Waly” as the final credits roll, kindly check your pulse.

Davies’s direction is unfailingly inventive. He’s not afraid to keep the camera still when he needs to, such as in the opening shot. At other times, two men fall through glass windows in slow motion, the fragments of glass twinkling like stars. In one standout sequence Davies cranes up from rows of umbrellas in the rain to the swelling strains of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and we cut to an audience watching the film enrapt, the cinema being another of the rituals that hold the family together. There’s not a false note in the casting or (as far as I can tell) the period detail. Given the subject matter this could be simply a wallow in miserabilism, and there are certainly painful moments in the first half, but Davies’s achievement is to make a film that is funny and true, and ultimately uplifting.

British cinema of the 1980s and 1990s are littered with directors who made only one or two features, and many of those men and women are now working in television. Loach, Leigh and Greenaway rely on overseas funding, and the last-named’s films are no longer distributed in his home country. To return to my earlier comparison, after completing his trilogy, Bill Douglas struggled for years to make another film, only completing the remarkable epic about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Comrades before his early death in 1991, aged fifty-seven. After Davies completed The Long Day Closes in 1992, he has struggled too. His two features since then are adaptations of novels: The Neon Bible in 1994 and The House of Mirth in 2000. More recently an attempt to film Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1933 Scottish classic novel Sunset Song fell apart when the BBC, Channel 4 and UK Film Council declined to contribute to the funding. .

Davies’s films will not be for everyone, and may not be “commercial”, but a healthy national cinema needs its artists as well as its populists, not that I’m suggesting the two are mutually exclusive. Davies is one of the finest film directors we have, and it cannot be good to prevent him exercising his art and craft when he should be in the prime of life and creativeness. I will be blunt here: we live in a country which would rather make Sex Lives of the Potato Men with lottery money. Hang your heads in shame.

Distant Voices Still Lives is released by the BFI on a dual-layered PAL disc encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD is anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 1.78:1. This would correspond to a theatrical ratio of 1.75:1, which would be entirely feasible for a low-budget, not overtly commercial British film of its time, and which also seems compositionally accurate. (Having said that, I first saw this film at a preview in the National Film Theatre, with Davies interviewed afterwards, and it was shown in 1.66:1 then.) The film was processed in the bleach-bypass process that had been first used four years earlier for Nineteen Eighty-Four and this DVD has it spot on: slightly soft and grainy, with an emphasis on muted browns that verge on sepia. It’s not the film’s fault that this look has become a cliché in the last twenty years, as shorthand for “period”.

The film was released with an analogue Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which is transferred to DVD as a Dolby Digital 2.0 track which plays as Surround via Dolby Prologic. It’s not the most adventurous mix, but then it never was: it’s mostly front and centre with the surrounds used for the music.

First among the extras is a commentary by Terence Davies. He’s on good form and humour, and informative about the origins and making of this film. I particularly liked his description of the first attempt at shooting the umbrellas in the sequence I refer to above as “a row of novelty condoms”.

Also on the disc are two interviews. The first is with Davies, conducted by Geoff Andrew (20:24). Much of this covers the same ground as the commentary, but Davies is an engaging speaker and Andrew’s contributions are intelligent. The second interview is with the art director, Miki van Zwanenberg (6:33). This is in a different format: she talks to camera in between footage of her at work and extracts from the film. It’s short but a useful look at the work of a vital but often underrated crewmember. Finally, there’s the non-anamorphic trailer (2:53), which is very dark and contrasty, and shows up how good the DVD looks in comparison. Subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras, the commentary included.

Along with the disc, the BFI have provided a twenty-page booklet, which includes a biography of Davies plus the following articles: “Bittersweet Symphony” by Beryl Bainbridge (who came from a similar background as Davies, though is eleven years older), reprinted from The Guardian, “The Art of Memory: Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives by Adrian Danks, which appears to be new, and Adam Barker’s review from the October 1988 Monthly Film Bulletin. As well as a cast and chapter list, the booklet also includes a couple of Davies’s storyboards.

Distant Voices Still Lives is a fine film, done justice here on DVD. But, Oliver Twist-like, I’ll ask for more: could we have the early Trilogy on disc, please, and how about The Long Day Closes? A UK release of The Neon Bible would not go amiss too.

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