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  Distant Voices, Still Lives Remembrance Of Times Past
Year: 1988
Director: Terence Davies
Stars: Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Sally Davies, Nathan Walsh, Susan Flanagan, Michael Starke, Vincent Maguire, Antonia Mallen, Debi Jones, Chris Darwin, Marie Jelliman, Andrew Schofield, Pauline Quirke
Genre: Drama, Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Now he is older he remembers his life in Liverpool when he was a child, living in a house with a large family around him, and how dreadfully scared they all were of their father (Pete Postlethwaite) who was not averse to using violence to impose his will on his brood. "Not averse" is putting it mildly, quite often they did not know when he was going to be set off, nor why, and that unpredictability made him terrifying to a little boy, never mind his older siblings. Father died when he was still young, but the memory of his savagery endured, especially when as the years advanced he would see examples of this angry man syndrome in many a household around the city...

Distant Voices, Still Lives, as with all its director Terence Davies' films, took an enormous amount of effort to be made with resources that could always have been more generous, and even when they were completed seemed to appeal more to highbrow critics than the "ordinary" folk he wished to reach out to. Nothing would have made Davies happier than to see this film, any of his works, really, turn into blockbusters, yet he recognised this was never going to happen considering his choice of subject matter and the methods he used to bring them to life. The naysayers would complain he did not bring them to life at all, merely pickled his memories of a time gone by with reverence.

Therefore you are left with a body of work that only those intrigued by arthouse cinema were going to be satisfied with, and from some angles this was curious given Davies' adoration of popular movies. When you know that adoration was largely of movies from his childhood in the nineteen-fifties when the film culture was revolving around bright musicals and lavish melodramas, brash comedies and the tail end of the Golden Age of Hollywood that served up an impossibly glamorous dream of exotic yet welcoming fictions, then you could argue he had been stuck in the past since the point he turned eighteen. And yet, his films like these were no mere pastiches, they could be brutal.

The first half of this (shot two years before the second), detailed the tyranny of living with a man whose main communication was through threats and violence, and what that can do to a family in a society where speaking out against your abusive husband, or father, was more or less taboo. The women here are expected to put up with it if their spouse beats them and the kids, it was part of being stoic as a woman, and the idea of divorcing them was unthinkable, thus the beatings continued for years unchecked - there was no way you would go to the police, and there were no support groups or shelters to allow you a respite. That sense of keeping your head down and getting on with life, no matter how awful it was for you, would likely strike a chord in anyone who had been through a similar experience.

All very well, but not the sort of thing that packs them in at the pictures, at least not in this carefully arranged endeavour to bring back the reality of Davies' childhood that was so meticulous that in some scenes, you could legitimately ask, why not make a documentary? (He did, years later). If you were responsive, sympathetic to both him and the women he idolised for surviving, you could feel as if this was a genuine window into the past; they obviously didn't have a lot of funds at their disposal, but what they did have contributed to a visually impeccable evocation of Liverpool in the forties and fifties. Then there was the other reason Davies loved the women, their habit of breaking out into song, suddenly allowing shafts of golden sunlight into some very gloomy situations: music was of absolute, paramount importance to him, and in conjunction with film it could transport him away on a cloud of ecstasy. If Distant Voices, Still Lives had been all rainbows then it might have been laughable, but the sincerity - and the grimness - force you to take it seriously, like it or not.

[Masses of features on the BFI's Blu-ray release, here in full:

New 4K digital restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, approved by director Terence Davies
Q&A With Terence Davies (2018, 32 mins): recorded after the UK premiere of the new restoration at BFI Southbank
Audio commentary by Terence Davies: the director scrutinises his film in this commentary from 2007
Interview With Terence Davies (2007, 20 mins): director Terence Davies discusses his work with film critic Geoff Andrew
Interview With Miki van Zwanenberg (2007, 7 mins): the film's art director looks back on its making
Introduction by Mark Kermode (2016,2 mins)
Images of Liverpool in Archive Film (1939-42, 62 mins): three archive shorts depicting the city of Liverpool and its community
Original and 2018 trailers
Image gallery
Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by critic Derek Malcolm and art director Miki van Zwanenberg, essays by Geoff Andrew and Adrian Danks, and full film credits.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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