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Distant Voices, Still Lives

February 28, 2011

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Freda Dowie, Dean Williams, Pete Postlethwaite

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Synopsis: Fragments of a remembered postwar childhood in Liverpool.

Review: Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of the great landmarks of British cinema – a simply stunning piece of poetry committed to celluloid, which explores with an overbearing sense of elegy, the feint echoes and haunting memories of Terence Davies’ family life in Forties and Fifties Liverpool. Key to understanding the overriding feel of Davies’ film is its wonderful opening, with our ‘gaze’ entering the family home and catching sight of the mother calling out to her kids upstairs, before the kids come racing down the staircase, only they are not seen, they are ‘heard’  – immediately eliciting a sense of distance and poignancy. The camera moves gracefully in to frame the loneliness of the staircase, before panning back out on to the street – replete with funeral cortege pulling up outside – which outs the whole undertow of mourning and remembrance that will cloak the remainder of the film. Davies revels in these sort of expressionistic devices, but never for mere ornate window-dressing but because he want us to ‘read’ the film through sense and reflection – not dramaturgy.

One clever technique locates a ‘still-life’ shot of the family in the living room before both a wedding and a funeral. Davies also cleverly supplements the ‘still’ element of the scene by employing overlapping flashbacks and interior monologues to augment the inner-musings of his characters. The other great feature of Distant Voices, Still Lives is the use of the popular song, which as Davies once articulated was the “poetry of the ordinary” for people in the pre-television era. The key in this recurring motif is that the singing offered the characters some emotional release – along with the boozing of course – against the everyday grind of their lives. (February 2011)

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