Arrow Video: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) - Reviewed

Terence Davies appeared quietly out of nowhere on the cinematic landscape with his 1988 autobiographical period tale of the working-class life in Liverpool, England between the 1940s and 1950s with Distant Voices, Still Lives.  As silently as the British writer-director rose to the podium with his abstract, nonlinear recollection on his upbringing under the domineering prowess of his brutally violent, boorish and often psychotic father, so swiftly was the newcomer auteur and his film championed as among British cinema’s most invaluable national treasures.  

Winning the Grand Prix at the Belgian Film Critics Association and voted the third greatest British film of all time, this episodic, fragmented and often lyrical ensemble piece chronicling the lives of a mother, son and two daughters harsh upbringing to a brighter but still difficult adulthood has often been called Britain’s forgotten cinematic masterpiece.  Thanks to a recent 4K theatrical restoration and home video release provided by the British Film Institute and Arrow Video, Distant Voices, Still Lives can now be seen by a new generation of viewership, a film which has lost none of its harshness, hopefulness and a genuine passion for the movies that is as palpable as anything in Wong Kar-Wai’s illustrious career.

Unfolding as a series of recollections broken up into two halves which were shot two years apart using the same cast and crew, the film follows near silent muse Freda Dowie as the family’s nameless mother and her three children Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), Eileen (Angela Walsh) and Tony (Dean Williams) as they tread lightly under the shadow of domestically violent and arguably manic depressive father Tommy Davies (Pete Postlethwaite in the role of his career).  Jumping freely from past to present scene by scene with an even greater structural abstraction than Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the film achieves the rare feat of stopping time where we’re mired in the worlds of these characters as we drift from episode to episode involving the very real damage the father inflicts upon his family.

Playing like two disparate pictures loosely linked by the family lineage, Davies’ labor of love chronicles the difficult chapters of his own life while functioning as a snapshot of 1940s and 1950s English life amid pubs, wedding parties, cigarettes, moviegoing and above all, the binding power of song.  Through much of the picture, the characters sing American songs together as the camera pans freely about the room observing the characters.  Much like Alan Parker’s cinematic adaptation of Angela’s Ashes though far more restrained comparatively in terms of imparting to the viewer how to take the bleak portrait of the characters’ fates, Distant Voices, Still Lives achieves its lasting power by offering viewers a glimpse into the director’s childhood without providing any final answers about it.  In other words, here are all of the highs and lows (mostly lows) encountered by Davies’ family growing up and you the viewer are left to make your own judgments. 

Upon cinematic release, one critic joked Davies’ heavy tragicomic personal memoir ‘made Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis’.  While it is true Distant Voices, Still Lives will indeed tug hard at the heartstrings and tear ducts, there’s also a wealth of hope for the future running throughout with the ongoing sing-song shared by the characters representing the characters’ joint efforts in getting everyone through their mutual personal obstacles.  Moreover, it is a nonjudgmental look into a section of British life often overlooked by the movies unfolding in a form that plays like a compendium of very real memories that remain as fresh, as troubling and as deeply personal as they were to the man who gave them cinematic form.


- Andrew Kotwicki