Distant Voices, Still Lives

December 10, 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film not quite like any I’ve ever seen. Lacking a conventional plotline, it tells its story through a series of seemingly drifting fragments, memories of life in Liverpool during and after World War II.

I’ve seen the film twice (once during the Seattle International Film Festival, where it was the best new movie I saw), and the non-linear method makes absolute sense. Writer-director Terence Davies has said that Distant Voices, Still Lives is based on his own growing-up in Liverpool, and the movement of the film resembles the memories that might pass through one’s mind during a long wool-gathering session; apparently random, but with a pattern and a logic all their own.

The family portrait Davies paints is a bleak one, shot in muted browns in low-rent neighborhoods. The father (Pete Postlethwaite) is a working-class brute with a gargoyle’s face, who beats his wife and regularly terrifies his children; and yet, one of the memories shows him slipping quietly in to the kids’ room on Christmas Eve to tenderly hang their stockings on the bedpost.

The long-suffering mother (Freda Dowie) prefers to put a good face on things (“Oh, let’s not have any upset,” she insists). The three children are shown both as very young kids and as people in their 20s, trying to create their own lives. The film begins and ends with two of them getting married, around which these memories swirl.

All through the movie, scenes are dominated by music. More specifically, singing; the misery of these lives seems to require that someone break into song, to lighten the load. There are literally dozens of songs in the film, most of which offer a counterpoint to the characters’ reality: a child nervously sings “Roll Out the Barrel,” during a wartime air raid, “Bye-Bye Blackbird” perks up a pub gathering. The effect is poignant; what oculd be more incongruous than these sad souls singing a bouncy all-American tune such as “Buttons and Bows”?

There’s a great moment when the soundtrack swells with the theme from Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, and Davies pans across a theater full of moviegoers to discover two of the main women characters, both bawling their eyes out, happy to be sad about something other than their own lives.

Davies has located these protective devices—songs, movies, radio shows—and shown how they provide escape and sustenance. And, more ambiguously, how they can allow his characters to avoid facing their problems; when tempers are about to break, someone simply calls for a song. Distant Voices, Still Lives is a very sad song indeed.

First published in the Herald, August 24, 1989.

Davies’ output has been limited since this film, and I still haven’t seen Of Time and the City, which barely opened in the U.S. in 2008. His adaptation of The House of Mirth is a remarkable movie, however, and makes you wish he had worked more often. An adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, The Deep Blue Sea, is due in 2012 with Rachel Weisz starring.