Posted October 24, 2018 by Chris Hick in News

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) Blu-ray Review

Dennis Potter navigated his way through understanding his own past via his nostalgic teleplays with mimed old tunes dominating through all these stories, especially in the successful nostalgia series Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective, Blue Remembered Hills and Lipstick on Your Collar. And so too does Terence Davies in his arthouse classic, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). Like Potter, weaving through this film the music and the voices of the past sound like haunted memories and ghosts in this most personal of films. Of course scripted by Davies, the opening shot has a shot of a typical terraced townhouse, a woman puts out milk bottles and the sound of the shipping forecast is heard on we assume a radio. The camera moves inside the house to the staircase. In this film nothing happens and everything happens.

Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945 and there is a very strong sense of the autobiography in the film. It is split into two halves: the distant voices as the family at the centre of the film have different impressions and memories of their father and the silent lives, in which the children, now grown up go through the rituals of life, namely weddings, funerals and a sing-song down the pub. There is the mother (Freda Dowie), a meek working-class woman, the father (Pete Postlethwaite), a man prone to rage and has a temper. Then there are the three kids: Eileen (Angela Walsh), Tony (Dean Williams) and Maisie (Lorraine Ashby). They each have their own memories of their father from a violent aggressive individual to happy Christmas memories.

The film is set between the late 1940s through to about 1956. In the first half there are flashbacks to their childhood, Dad and the Blitz, while Eileen and Maisie fight with Dad about going to the weekend dance and Tony fighting with Dad while on leave from National Service. The second half the film changes tone as it goes through funerals and marriages of each of the characters.

Davies’s film is filled with unusual leaps in narrative structure. These are to the director Proustian leaps triggered by music, songs, the shipping forecast or smells. Time and again the camera rests on the framed image of a family standing in their best waiting for a photo to be taken, the eternal image of family unity (this image also adorns the cover to the BFI release). There are also some very imaginative moments in the film. When the sisters are watching Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1956) at the well known (and sadly now demolished) Futurist Cinema in Liverpool their spouses are seen to fall through a glass ceiling in an accident in a beautifully shot scene in slow motion. These events, while significant accidents, did happen in real life, but they were not at the same time and Davies filmed them together for practical reasons. This scene is effective and memorable.

As usual with BFI releases there are some fantastic framing extras on the disc including an introduction with Mark Kermode. There is also a (witty) BFI interview with Davies following the restored recent screening of the film this year. In addition there is an interview between film critic Geoff Andrew and Davies made 10 years ago. There is also an interview with the film’s art director, Miki van Zwanenberg who discusses how she set dressed the film and kept the authenticity of the period it was set. What is interesting about many of the BFI releases is the archive documentary films inserted, in this case short vintage documentaries of Liverpool made between 1939 -1942, including the 1939 film on the city’s slum clearance. These give the film some superb social history context.

In many ways this is more than Terence Davies nostalgic journey through his own past, but is also recalling a working-class Liverpool that, in Davies’s words no longer exists. This is not the Liverpool of The Beatles who would have been just slightly younger than these characters and seems a whole generation away, even though it is one they might recognise from their own upbringings. Previously released by BFI is his 2008 documentary release, Of Time and the City,¬†his own farewell to the city of his birth. Distant Voices, Still Lives deserves its place as one of the greatest British ever made.

Chris Hick

Chris Hick