“Distant Voices, Still Lives”
Loosely based on the director Terence Davies’ own family and upbringing, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” is an evocative account of working-class life in Liverpool, England during the 1940s and 50s. Births, marriages and deaths and the wonderful use of music provide the underpinning for a film that is beautiful, heartbreaking and resonant yet is never sentimental.
The film is now regarded as a masterpiece of British cinema, and has a bravura performance from Pete Postlethwaite as the head of the family. “Distant Voices, Still Lives” now has a glorious 4K restoration by the British Film Institute.
Davies’ points out that we never truly emigrate from the past. “Distant Voices, Still Lives” is set in a working-class Liverpudlian home, and looks at the period after the Blitz and before The Beatles. I understand that it is heavily autobiographical in that Davies draws on his own childhood to present an evocative portrait, which is as much about the nature of memory as it is about the events which occur.
Tony (Dean Williams) lives with his sisters Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Eileen (Angela Walsh) in a terraced house with their mom (Freda Dowie) and volatile dad (Pete Postlethwaite). Their lives are typical of the period, with women bonding together but frequently oppressed by their men folk. This is a film rich in reality, latching on to the highs and lows.
Davies’ roving camera wanders the passages of the past in a film which is split into two parts – the first recalling Dad’s beatings, intercut with a marriage and a death, and the second centering on a christening and a wedding but covering a lot more ground.
Actually Davies wrote and filmed the second part of the film some two years after completing the edit on the Distant Voices segment.
The result is very rich and delves into how our reminiscences work. Multi-layered memories reveal long-forgotten ideas. Voices are as important as visuals to Davies and he tells his story as much through songs sung at the pub or hymns. With just about every character actor Liverpool had in the Eighties making an appearance, the cast are as strong as the concept but this is less about the people than the period. Told in a non-linear fashion, the first half of the film “Distant Voices” begins with the family preparing for Eileen’s wedding, but recollections of Tommy are quickly woven in as his absence at the ceremony is felt, and soon the past dominates all. While some of the memories are warmly nostalgic, most are quite brutal. We see the father insult and beat his wives and daughters, and the terrified family shelter from the Blitz. The second half. “Still Lives” focuses on Eileen and Maisie’s married lives and is more conventional and less compelling in terms of both substance and style.
“Distant Voices” contains beautiful and poetic filmmaking. Davies seems to have miraculously captured the essence of memory itself in its elliptical, dreamlike quality. Moments aren’t necessarily remembered in the order they happened, while what connects them is mysterious and somehow intelligible at the same time. It is the cinematic equivalent of literary stream-of-consciousness that we associate with associated in literature with the works of Proust and Virginia Woolf.
Though there is plenty of movement and dancing in the film, characters’ recollections are typically framed within perfectly set compositions that evoke photography and the precise moments in time it captures. There are mesmerizing fades and transitions that transport the viewer almost unnoticeably from past to the present, and back again. Colors are deliberately unsaturated to represent memory’s vagueness, and the actors deliver their lines with a self-consciousness that reminds one this is reality remembered, not reality itself.
Music, with its intrinsic power to evoke the past, also has an important role to play.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
Brand new 4K restoration, carried out by the British Film Institute
High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
Original stereo audio (uncompressed LPCM)
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Commentary by writer-director Terence Davies
Interview with Davies
Interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg
More to be announced!
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Christina Newland plus archive essays