Terence Davies’ début Distant Voices, Still Lives is effectively two short films largely set in 1950s Liverpool. It is an intimate depiction of a typical family, encompassing both the mundane daily chores and the big events that act like milestones in life. We see extremes of all emotions against a consistent mood of bittersweet nostalgia, embodied by a fair few good old British sing-a-longs. There are so many songs it could qualify as a musical. That this typical family happens to be based on director Terence Davies’ own background allows him to explore the events in a free-wheeling fashion that eschews a typical plot and the result is a hypnotic, dream-like masterpiece. He has created a unique film by identifying that memory is not about a plot, but about a feeling, a place or a time. Context and order is merely for the convenience of understanding ‘why’, but ‘why’ isn’t always important. Nevertheless there is a story to be found between the moments of this film and if you embrace the technique the result is captivating.
It is seemingly made up of random memories and anecdotes Davies has of his family and his style employs simple setups and graceful long shots, rich with detail and an atmosphere of realism. Yet conversely, characters speak with consistent measured dialogue, so in each scene there is a sense of an unseen narrator; so surely that’s a typical romanticised narrative rather than realism, but interestingly, there is no character that represents a young Terence, so the viewer is never given a base of reference within which you would normally find your plot and a sense of time passing; or that sense of why.
The very fact that it is so fractured raises the question of how valid it actually is as a film. It could so easily appear pointless and indulgent; merely a device the director can hide behind. I don’t mean to tar all impressionism, by the way, just that a regular cause-and-effect plot is easier to judge. If there is no traditional narrative, by what rules can it be considered good, bad, or indifferent? No matter how well performed a sequence is, is it meaningless without a clear conclusion?
The genius of Distant Voices, Still Lives is in what we learn in the small moments about certain characters and the juxtaposition between the scenes. A tearful visit to the cinema blends to an abstract view of two men falling slowly through a glass roof, while the score to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing plays over both. There is an incredibly moving festive scene with a very different effect for Christmas Eve and then Day, but possibly the most memorable scene is that of the children running to a shelter during a wartime air-raid. It’s astonishing, but sharply focused by a small moment when they reach safety. Davies has successfully mimiced the way we relate memories together. By inviting us into his past so completely and honestly, it reminds us of our own. I might be biased there, because Davies is a similar age to my parents and much of what I see in this film strikes a chord with how they related their upbringing. But in any case, his skill for relating the details of the time is so great I think anyone could find something of value in this film.
Is Davies’ grim depiction of life essentially hopeless? As with Deep Blue Sea take a sidelong glance and you’ll see it isn’t. Life was tough back then, but the spirit was always strong, as embodied by the mother (Freda Dowie), obviously an interpretation of Terence Davies’ own. On one level Distant Voices, Still Lives works as a tribute to her and women like her. There’s a wonderful moment when she’s cleaning a window. It’s so simple but very effective and could represent the tone of the whole film as she takes a risk that makes her daughter gasp, but it’s a risk she probably took every week or so because windows need cleaning! While Dowie is the anchor of the film, Pete Postlethwaite is the terrifying shadow over all of them as the violent father. He demonstrates the generosity of Davies’ writing with moments both good and bad (the Christmas scenes in particular) that can’t possibly be a consistent memory from one emotional person, but a realistic depiction of a very complicated man who would let his temper get the better of him.
It’s certainly not all grim though. There are a lot of easy, lighter scenes between the kids especially (Lorraine Ashbourne, Angela Walsh and Dean Williams) as they go out with friends (including the hilarious Debi Jones), sing a lot and eventually marry. I say eventually, but the back to front nature of the film doesn’t necessarily show the lives in order. It’s interesting to see how the same sorts of characters pop up in The Long Day Closes as Terence Davies continues to refer back to his upbringing.
I could say Terence puts his heart and soul into his films, but that would be wrong; it is his heart and soul. I’m not sure I have ever seen a body of work that so reflects the director, with such open honesty. So as I asked earlier, how do we judge such work? It’s those pesky goosebumps again. Davies, a true cinematic poet, is a director who relies on his own rhythm and when that matches ours as well, it’s a beautiful piece of work to experience. It might require a bit of effort to look past the lack of a plot, but that effort is rewarded in one of the most unique and simply affecting films you will ever see.