Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) ***
Directed by:
Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies.
Starring: Pete Postlethwaite (Father), Freda Dowie (Mother), Lorraine Ashbourne (Maisie), Angela Walsh (Eileen), Dean Williams (Tony), Jean Boht (Aunty Nell), Michael Starke (Dave), Andrew Schofield (Les), Debi Jones (Micky), Chris Darwin (Red), Vincent Maguire (George).

Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives plays like a memory or perhaps a dream. There really isn’t a plot to the movie – there is certainly no narrative drive – and the characters remain somewhat hazy and not really well defined. The people lack depth. And yet, I found Distant Voices, Still Lives to be a quietly transfixing, and ultimately moving film. The first half of the film is bleak and depressing, but it gives way to a second half that is more upbeat, and perhaps even hopeful, even though there is still darkness.

The first half of the film revolves around one Liverpool family’s upbringing in the 1940s with an abusive, cruel father (Pete Postlewaite). The three children are now young adults, and as they father grows sicker, and ultimately dies, we look book at their life as children through each of their eyes. Two of them remember only the bad about their father – his mean streak and cruelty that you never could tell when he was going to explode. They also remember the resolve of their mother, who tries her best to make their lives bearable. Divorce is never mentioned as an option. Yet one of the three children, the youngest, remembers the good moments with their father – how he was at points capable of being tender and even kind. I think this is somewhat of a survival mechanism – some of us just cannot bring ourselves to deal with the pain in our lives, so we whitewash over it.

The second half of the film, following the death of the father, is more upbeat. We see the children move into adulthood, and become better people then their father was – and have healthier married relationships than their parents did. There is a note of darkness, as they do see one of their friends trapped in the same cycle of control and abuse, and feel powerless to stop it. But ultimately from the films ugly beginning, their emerges hope.

Music is very important to the film – and the way Davies uses it in the two halves of his movie evolves. In the first half, the shiny happy songs of the 1940s offset against the cruelty we see in the film – most memorably setting a scene o f abuse to Ella Fitzgerald’s Taking a Chance on Love. Davies also has the cast do some of their own singing in the film. Music plays an important role in the film – just like I think it does with memory. Songs can have different associations for different people that have nothing at all to do with what the song is actually about.

To me, Distant Voices, Still Lives was a fascinating little movie – ultimately quite moving when you allow yourself to get on its wavelength. This is not a movie about plot or characters, but about memory. Most directors when they look back at their childhood have an sense of nostalgia that doesn’t match up to reality, but here, Davies sees the time in which he grew up with his eyes open. Ultimately, for me, I do not think it is a great film. I do think perhaps I require something more to hold onto – to sink my teeth into – than what Davies offers here, which is ultimately more surface and style than substance. But it is a wonderful little film just the same.

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