Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988) Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones

David Wilson:
They are family memories. And it will doubtless be said that, as in his trilogy of films which culminated in Death and Transfiguration, Davies is here again working out his relationship with his family. Clearly there is some truth in this, not least by the filmmaker’s own admission and from biographical evidence. Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945, and evidently had the kind of childhood which leaves permanent scars. His new film is set in Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s, and centres on a family wounded by the malign presence of a brutish father. But this is only an autobiographical work in the sense that, say, Sons and Lovers is ‘about’ Lawrence’s own family. It is a film rooted in personal memory, but transcending it. As in the doctrine of transubstantiation – and the family here is Catholic – the substance is mysteriously made something else. For one thing, the setting is deliberately denied a geographical specificity: the city of Liverpool is recognisable only from the characters’ accents. As in a family photograph, exteriors are cropped out, rendered insignificant by the centrality of the subjects. The terraced houses and grim Victorian public buildings belong in a working-class area of a large city, but the film does not have a Liverpool accent. It is a work of intense interiority, unmediated by the particularity of place. Sight & Sound.

Peter Bradshaw:
This is a portrait of the working class that is the opposite of Noël Coward’s in This Happy Breed. Yet there is the same sense of place: the idea that the same parlour, the same hallway, the same front step, could be the scene for important moments: weddings and funerals. Perhaps 1988 was the last time when audiences might have had memories of family pub singsongs from the postwar era. It is remarkable how Davies holds your attention with nothing more than those extended scenes of people singing. The songs have everything: drama, comedy, tragedy. It is very moving and as gripping as any thriller. Guardian.

Fernando F. Croce:
Although Davies has stated that in filmmaking he has worked out his reasons for rejecting his early Catholicism, Distant Voices, Still Lives remains one of the most profoundly spiritual films in recent decades. Davies’s utter faith is in human emotion, rendered through popular art; late-40s tunes, enriched over the years with the expressive personal connections they have come to carry, are no less sacred than the baptismal liturgy that welcomes Maisie’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) infant into this world. “Buttons and Bows” performed at a wedding reception, the crowd at the pub warbling “Bye Bye Blackbird” as the night comes to a close—these are instances of feeling distilled to its essence, as if Davies took the musicals he loved so much growing up and zeroed in onto the tremulous heartbeats. Time, joy, and family are transitory, yet Davies knows that the camera’s ability to capture them borders on the divine. I can think of few more moving expressions of this than the sublime ascending crane from the huddled umbrellas outside a theater that dissolves into a gentle pan over the rapt, weeping faces of the audience inside. From rain to tears, and set to the strains of the Love Is a Many Splendored-Thing score, Davies exults cinema’s transformative powers past, present, and future. Slant.

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 18 October, 2023 | Now: 18 October, 2023