Distant Voices, Still Lives

English Title: Distant Voices, Still Lives

Country of Origin: Britain

Studio: BFI, Channel 4/BFI

Director: Terence Davies

Producer(s): Colin McCabe, Jennifer Howarth

Screenplay: Terence Davies

Cinematographer: Patrick Duval, William Diver

Editor: William Diver

Runtime: 85 minutes

Genre: Art

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Dean Williams, Angela Walsh, Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie

Year: 1988

Volume: British


Two related stories combine to depict the lives of the Davies, a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool, from WWII to the mid-1950s. Three siblings, Eileen, Masie and Tony and their mother, suffer the violent abuse of the family patriarch, Tommy Davies, who casts a shadow over their lives even after his death. The characters re-enact key events in the family’s life, including weddings, a christening and Tommy’s funeral as well as their memories of domestic abuse as well as of happier times. 


If the first two parts of Terence Davies early autobiographical trilogy – Children (1976) and Madonna and Child (1980) – are recognizably rooted in the social realist tradition and perhaps betray the influence of Bill Douglas (who briefly taught Davies at the national film school in the late 1970s), the final part, Death and Transfiguration (1983), revealed the emergence of an utterly distinctive voice. In that short film, Davies demonstrated great narrative economy, cutting between events in an entirely non-linear fashion and eliding many events or reducing them to snippets of sound heard in voice-over. This voice grew to maturity in Distant Voices, Still Lives, which must stand as one of the truly great films about memory. The work is fragmented and the structure, which according to Davies follows an ‘emotional logic’, can at first be difficult to follow. However, it is self-consciously designed to reflect the disjointed way in which people remember. Davies also described the film as a mosaic, a film made up of tiny fragments that do not reveal a complete picture until one stands back from it and looks at it as a whole.


As in Death and Transfiguration, the use of sound and music is particularly rigorous, and reveals Davies to be the most original of all modern British film-makers in this respect. The soundtrack combines fragments of conversation with resonant sounds such as the BBC radio shipping forecast, which opens the film like an incantation, and pre-existing music, most often popular songs of the time, which underscore the images. While many songs are heard non-diegetically, Davies also has his cast perform songs a cappella, both alone and in groups. Indeed, music is so prevalent in the film that one critic called the film ‘the first social-realist musical’. However, whether he uses music ironically, as he does Eddie Calvert’s recording of ‘O Mein Papa’, or with total sincerity, as in Maisie’s rendition of ‘My Yiddisher Mama’, Davies always manages to sidestep sensationalism and empty nostalgia.


Visually, the film is also a notable achievement. In order to recreate the rather drab colours Davies’ remembers from his childhood, he employed the bleach bypass process to the negative. This, coupled with a very controlled use of camera movement, gives the entire film the appearance of a series of slightly-faded photographs. Indeed, the film has been likened to leafing through a family photo album, and the narrative concentrates on birthdays, christenings and holidays. It was criticized in some critical corners for getting stuck between British social realism and European art cinema and not being sufficiently one or the other. Many critics, however, view it as a seminal British film that successfully reconciles these two strands of film-making: the former in its subject matter and milieu, the latter in its modernist structure.


Although the film is described as autobiographical, Davies in fact writes himself and several other brothers and sisters out of the film to concentrate on the collective memories of his mother and three eldest siblings. His follow-up, The Long Day Closes (1992) focused more directly on his own childhood and features an even more fractured and impressionistic narrative than its predecessor, and an equally more rigorous use of music and sounds, often taken from Davies’ favourite childhood films. 

Author of this review: Brian Hoyle

Peer reviewer: Brian Hoyle