The working-class, mid-twentieth-century Liverpudlian characters who populate Terence Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) sometimes glance in the direction of the camera, their self-conscious near-posing and the director’s portrait-like framing evoking the flipping-through of an old photo album. This combination of intimacy and remove — the startling emotional jolt of seeing a family in mourning stare toward you in silence, an image of the felled patriarch hanging on the wall behind them — characterizes Davies’s enthralling thirty-year-old debut feature, an autobiographically informed but hardly event-reliant memory piece. (It returns this week in a 4K restoration.) Davies’s reminiscences, centered on one Catholic clan, unfold according to a peculiar emotional logic: The characters are more comfortable singing than speaking. (“Bye Bye Blackbird” diffuses a barroom argument.) Scenes aren’t shaped with typical dramatic roundness, but rather pick up and cut off at surprise intervals. Even an encounter with stark interpersonal stakes — a confrontation between army-age son Tony (Dean Williams) and abusive father Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite) — is structured as a sort of de-escalation. Davies opens on an expression of mighty rage, Tony punching his fists through a window (“Fight me, you bastard!”), then transitions abruptly to a near-the-fireplace shot of Tony holding two beers in his bloodied hands, Tommy flatly but quietly refusing his boy’s offer of a drink. Such disjunctive stops and starts recur across Davies’s movie, whose look-back form — all elegiacally drifting camera movements and belted-out bar songs — endures as a grand cinematic anomaly.
Like Davies’s spiritually aligned and similarly song-rich The Long Day Closes (1992), Distant Voices, Still Lives opens with a downpour; here, the raindrops fall on a front step stocked with fresh milk bottles. Unlike that later movie, which maintains a mostly childhood-specific p.o.v., Distant Voices, Still Lives loops with abandon through the years and personalities, observing deaths, births, hospital visits, weddings, holidays. Eileen (Angela Walsh), one of the two daughters of Tommy and “Mother” (Freda Dowie), gushes over a bottle of Chanel perfume gifted to her by Dave (Michael Starke), whom she later marries. (In The Long Day Closes, the women seated around a table wish they had Chanel.) Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), Eileen’s sister, asks her father for money to go to the dance, which he agrees to only if she’ll clean the cellar; she scrubs the floors, and then he beats her with a broomstick. At a crowded pub, Tony places a seemingly never-ending drink order; seconds later, he shepherds a tray’s worth of cold beers into a bustling room of crooning loved ones. As kids, the siblings spy on their father brushing a horse and singing to himself — a moment of tenderness for this hard man.
On occasion, Davies interrupts the thoughtful solemnity with touches of humor: Eileen offhandedly calling her loud-chewing husband “Mouth Almighty” is a barb worthy of Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in Davies’s A Quiet Passion. Stylistically, some of his maneuvers create an almost confounding mix of the tragic and the unhinged, as when he depicts one accidental disaster — two men falling through a pane of glass — via an extravagant slow-motion shot that lasts around thirty seconds. A sudden, out-of-context image like that one is typical of the sprawl of Distant Voices, Still Lives, but the intention behind other structural decisions is more clear. Early on, Eileen and her good friend Micky (Debi Jones) loiter outside Eileen’s house after an evening of dancing, hoping to get in one final cigarette before Tommy’s strict curfew. Obviously very cool and destined for better, more glamorous things, the women covertly mock Eileen’s father’s social restrictions (“It’s worse than Alcatraz, isn’t it?”). Years later, the two share another private chat at the end of a long night out. Micky raises the specter of future get-together plans, but the conversation only amounts to Eileen’s halfhearted “We’ll see, kid.” The gradations of life — spouses, responsibilities, fatigue — have caught up with them, wearing down their youthful exuberance. As in the rest of the movie, Davies seizes this crushing morsel of wisdom practically on the fly, before rushing on to the next memory, the next song, the next glass of beer.
Distant Voices, Still Lives
Directed by Terence Davies
Opens August 31, Metrograph
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