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DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (director/writer: Terence Davies; cinematographers: William Diver/Patrick Duval; editor: William Diver; cast: Pete Postlethwaite (Father), Freda Dowie (Mother), Angela Walsh (Eileen), Dean Williams (Tony), Lorraine Ashbourne (Maisie), Debi Jones (Micky), Chris Darwin (Red), Antonia Mallen (Rose), Michael Starke (Dave), Nathan Walsh (Tony as a child), Susan Flanagan (Maisie as a child), Sally Davies (Eileen as a child); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jennifer Howarth/Colin MacCabe; Artisan Entertainment; 1988-UK)
“Brilliant, unique and poignant autobiographical drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terence Davies’ (“The Long Day Closes”/”The Neon Bible”) brilliant, unique and poignant autobiographical drama chronicles the life of his troubled working-class family in the 1940s and 1950s Liverpool. It features two weddings (sister Eileen and brother Tony), a funeral and a long pub scene. The family had to endure the cruelties of their violent patriarch, who at times could also be tender, and are still haunted by the ghosts from the past. It begins with the death of the father and the second half, the more joyous one, tells of the older daughter’s marriage.

Pete Postlethwaite is Tommy Davies, the turbulent and taciturn father; Freda Dowie is Mrs Davies, his stoic wife and the savior of the family; and Angela Walsh is Eileen, the daughter whose marriage brings new hope. The younger daughter is the sweet Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne).

To enrich the story Davies uses old family portraits and a collection of tableau vivants, while the bleakness of their lives is shown through their cramped family living quarters and in their downbeat conversations. The first half of the film, ‘Distant Voices’, is immersed in painful childhood memories of their dad and how stoical was their mum. The second half, ‘Still Lives,’ things become more lively with a more robust widow and plenty of pub sing-a-longs to all too familiar tunes like ‘Taking a Chance on Love,’ ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.’ Though this moves it into Dennis Potter territory, except here the music becomes essential in showing how the family gets things off their chest and finds a source of joy in their miserable existence.

The surprising thing is that all this might sound gloomy and depressing, but it turns like a night out at the pub when you had a few pints and you can feel the camaraderie around you and things seem a little better while you’re a wee bit tipsy and taken aback with the moment to worry about other things. It’s that kind of glorious pic, without plot, that captures in emotionally charged ways these Brit working-class types without patronizing them or taking away that special magic they have in surviving. By its simple filming techniques, without artifice, it also evokes comparison to great filmmakers such as Michael Powell and Yasujiro Ozu.

It was filmed in a period over two years, with the second part taking place a year later.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”