Distant Voices, Still Lives
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
Dir. Terrence Davies
Terrence Davies was, until very recently, a director I only knew of in passing, seeing as how I’d only seen his underrated if slight adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. However, I’d just come across a critic’s poll from Sight & Sound magazine detailing the Top 10 films of the last 25 years, a daunting and broad task for sure (and from 2002 no less… I love these guys, I really do, but jesus, they could stand to update from time to time). Anyways, there amongst a list of films very familiar to me, from Apocalypse Now to, interestingly enough, Yi Yi, was a film I recall hearing of, but knew next to nothing about, Distant Voices, Still Lives. And lo and behold, here’s a beloved, award-winning, influential British film from 1988, that, if you haven’t guessed already, fits that recurring theme of this here blog; unavailable in the U.S. Ok, I’m willing to concede that even Poison is a niche title, but my god, a film this praised has never seen the light of digital day in the US, yet is treated with Criterion-level reverence by BFI? Well, this I gotta see…
And what a film this is. Gorgeous from the very first frame, Distant Voices, Still Lives is cinematic poetry in its purest, a film that eschews any semblance of linear plot in favor of painterly images of nostalgia and memory. Therein lays the artistic stamp of Terrence Davies; films about the persistence of memory, and how easily it is to gloss over the surrounding context of certain events. His memory and the memory of his characters exists to pinpoint very specific, tiny details that help make up the larger narrative, leaving the whole up to the imagination.
Distant Voices, Still Lives in essence is about a working-class British family in the 1940s and 1950s, and is separated into two sections, Distant Voices and Still Lives, respectively. Distant Voices concerns the family living under an abusive patriarch during war-time, growing up remembering both the kindness he could display, and the crushing abuse he was later capable of. The father is played beautifully by the always underrated Pete Postlethwaite, who expertly juggles both the terror and the tenderness while retaining a great deal of ambiguity, an astonishing feat indeed. It would be very easy to fit the pieces together and create an image of how this man could devolve into such a monster, but instead Davies seamlessly flows between one disjointed memory after another, letting the viewer paint the picture.
The second section of the film, Still Lives, concerns the family after the death of the father, growing into their own skin despite the constant haunting memories of their father. It is now the 1950s and the general outlook for Britain seems much more optimistic on a whole, encapsulating that oft-mined post-war innocence. The future is not what these characters are thinking about; they revert back into their own past through nostalgia of events, but above all, songs.
That brings me to the most fascinating, and likely infuriating for some, aspect of this film; by all accounts, Distant Voices, Still Lives is a musical through and through. The characters randomly and frequently burst into song, but they are hardly staged musical numbers. The music brings these people together in their experiences, and they have no shame at all expressing this through outbursts of song. If this film were made about this generation, or really anything after the early 1960s, it would likely consist of pop songs purely, which personally sounds agonizing. However, there is something so sweet, and dare I say poignant, about the traditional songs that these characters sing. The music is so rooted in community by nature, as they are not tied to specific recordings by any means. These are songs accredited to no one in their minds, just as a community experience, something that has tied them together their entire lives. This film is nostalgia, pure and simple, but gives a compelling look at how memory and music are inexorably linked with one another, especially at a time when a technological boom was looming overhead, just distant enough to give a pure, fleeting embrace of the past.
I’ll leave you with a shot early on in the film, and give you an idea of just how stunning this film’s cinematography really is.