Dir. Terence Davies, UK, 1989, 85 mins,
Cast: Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams
Review by Peter Fraser
Distant Voices, Still Lives is a film by Terence Davies, one of the UK's most gifted and distinctive auteurs, recalling his working class Liverpudlian childhood in the '40s and '50s. It is told in an utterly memorable style appropriate for a film that is fundamentally concerned with the vagaries of memory and how memory relates to personal and communal experience and identity. Hence, while the film is split into two, it has a generally fragmented, like the window that Terence's father falls through at one point, or rather associative structure that might call to mind wanderings through a maze with only the being known as 'Terence Davies' as the maze itself, the destination within that maze, and the ball of string that leads us down one path and then up another. In fact the film's elliptical and circular movement expresses poetic truths about time and the obsessive layering involved in personal recollection as a 'Self' constructs and is constructed by events and perceptions of events. Recurring motifs emphasise the repetitive lifestyle of the period and the sureties of a closed community.
It's a film that is emphatically created by a director in love with cinema, who would be more than willing to stand in the rain to catch a glimpse of the Hollywood musical 'Love is A Many Splendored Thing', though in reality the weather was sunny. The rain is Davies' own tribute to Hollywood rain, to the movies and the redemptive powers of art although Davies' tyrannical father, superbly portrayed by Pete Postlethwaite, is in the movie both a terrible, and a terribly banal, enigma in his petty violence and abuse.
Yet such a humane film can't help but seem generous to all its characters their own lives and the life of the director, their own personalities and the personality of the filmmaker, their own memories and the memories of Davies. Watching Distant Voices, Still Lives is like dropping a stone down a well and waiting for it to hit the bottom with a splash or a thud but the sound never comes. It expresses something that movies rarely express: the painful inadequacy and yet necessity of bearing testimony to lived and remembered experience. Please go see.