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Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)


Main image of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
35mm, colour, 85 mins
DirectorTerence Davies
Production CompaniesBFI Production Board, Channel 4, ZDF
ProducerJennifer Howarth
ScriptTerence Davies
PhotographyWilliam Diver
 Patrick Duval

Cast: Freda Dowie (Mrs. Davies, the mother); Peter Postlethwaite (Tommy Davies, the father); Dean Williams (Tony); Angela Walsh (Eileen); Sally Davies (young Eileen)

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The life of a working-class family in Liverpool. The wedding of the elder daughter and the christening of the younger daughter's baby evoke memories of the family's past, including their lives through the war years.

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Terence Davies's debut feature is actually two films, made two years apart. With the same cast and setting, and an effective matching of image and mood, Distant Voices and Still Lives work together to make a highly resonant feature which continues to mine the rich biographical seam explored in Davies's earlier Trilogy.

The experiments in 'memory-realism' honed in the earlier works are extended and brought to fruition in a highly distinctive marriage of style and content. Distant Voices, Still Lives combines the social concerns of much British cinema (in this case, life in a working-class Liverpool Catholic family) with formal and existential preoccupations more readily associated with European art cinema: an emphasis on the personal and on sexual or religious themes, for example, as well as narrative ambiguity and a distinctive visual style.

But far from being a gratuitous stylistic flourish, the film's 'poetry of the ordinary' is grounded in, and dictated by, its subject matter. Composed largely of events and situations recalled by different family members, Distant Voices, Still Lives is about memory itself, and through its organisation of sounds and images enacts the very process of remembering. Especially distinctive features of the film include the mixture of standpoints from which events are recalled, the vignettish character of the memory-stories, and references to popular songs, popular culture, religious iconography and religious music. Film critic Derek Malcolm aptly described it as "a musical version of Coronation Street directed by Robert Bresson, with additional dialogue by Sigmund Freud and Tommy Handley."

The film's authentic feel derives not from naturalism, nor even from realism in any ordinary sense. Rather, it contrives to convey the emotion, the 'structure of feeling', that attaches to memory. The narration, like memory itself, is cyclical, repetitive, ambiguous, suggesting, as Martin Hunt puts it, an "ambivalent, interrogative, contradictory and ultimately unresolved" relation to the past. The film's refusal of nostalgia is underscored by the brownish, bleached-out, hand-tinted look of its colour palette, and by startling juxtapositions of memories of happiness and brutality.

Distant Voices, Still Lives captures, from the inside, what it feels like to live (or rather to remember living) in a particular kind of family and in a certain class setting - a way of life some might say is now lost. Whether or not this is so, the film effectively conveys a very particular set of experiences in a way that is universally recognisable.

Annette Kuhn

*This film is available on BFI DVD and is also the subject of a BFI Modern Classics book by Paul Farley.

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Video Clips
1. Opening (4:50)
2. Father's rage (4:35)
3. The fall (1:54)
Original trailer (2:48)
Production stills (bw)
Production stills (colour)
Publicity materials
Children (1976)
Death and Transfiguration (1983)
Madonna and Child (1980)
Davies, Terence (1945-)
Postlethwaite, Pete (1945-2011)
Channel 4 and Film
They Started Here
Liverpool: Days in the Life