Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies | 1hr 25min

Memories flow like water in Distance Voices, Still Lives, swirling around in the basin of human thought, gliding from one to the next through intuitive connections and tangents. Its plotlessness should not be mistaken for a lack of form, as Terence Davies effectively builds visual and thematic motifs based around cultural tradition which run through almost every scene. Chief among them is his use of tableaus, many of which bear striking resemblance to those composed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, in which groups of characters stand or sit in structured formations without making eye contact. This lack of connection hints at an isolation between them, yet the flashbacks these images segue into illustrate the equally traumatic and nostalgic memories which bind them all together.

A rigorously formal work in Davies’ use of tableaux, bringing a photo book quality to the film. His blocking is stark and minimalist, but also exactingly precise.
It is also a perfect marriage of style, form, and content in the tradition-heavy lives of these characters.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is also heavily autobiographical for Davies, who paints a moving portrait of a working-class family in wartime and post-war Britain. In troubled times, their community gathers at the local pub to savour the few scraps of escapism that they can conjure. Alcohol is an important part of this, especially beverages such as ‘rum and pep’ and ‘mackies’, names which almost seem as if they belong to an entirely foreign dialect.

Even more important than the drinking culture is the songs they sing in moments of quiet reflection and boisterous joviality, ranging from folk to jazz standards. As many of these characters lack formal education they are not especially eloquent with their words, and so it is rather through their soulful renditions of popular, period-appropriate music that they communicate their deepest feelings, even as they hear the bombing of their city outside.

Songs and drinks binding this community together through the best and worst times. A distinct sense of setting established through these tiny details.

Though the quaint mannerisms and habits of these characters belong to a different era, there is a universality to the complexity of their pain. The first half of this film, titled Distant Voices, opens on the funeral of the Davies family’s patriarch. While his wife and children grieve, they simultaneously recognise the conflicted emotions that come as a result of their loss.

In flashbacks we see dimensions of the man who could not possibly be captured in a five-minute eulogy. He was troubled, angry, and abusive, clearing preferring one of his daughters above his other children. But at times, there was a sensitivity that shone through when he thought no one was watching. The children would climb up to the stable loft just to get a glimpse of him content, singing to himself as he brushed the horses. It is the small moments like these that linger decades later, leaving the impression that these memories aren’t long forgotten tales, but are rather just as vivid as the present day. The cumulative effect of each recollection continues building to form a nuanced, poetic impression of the Davies family as a whole.

The children spying on a happier version of their father from the stable loft, bringing depth to this troubled, complicated man.
Davies’ use of doorways and windows continues to be integral to the form of the piece all throughout, conveying so much information within these narrowed frames.

The second half of the film, Still Lives, was filmed two years after the first and moves past the funeral, opening with the baptism of Eileen’s baby girl and ending with Tony’s wedding. While the rest of Distant Voices, Still Lives is made up of small, seemingly insignificant memories, the events that are considered truly consequential are religious ceremonies, emphasised further by their placement at the start, midpoint, and conclusion of the film. These Catholic traditions are the bedrock of the family’s faith, giving them a sense of stability through life’s harshest trials. Towards the end, a gorgeous composition of black umbrellas huddled together in the rain reflects the Davies family’s own ethos in a single image, collectively keeping the woes of life at bay through their tight formation.

Religion a constant presence in Davies’ thoughtful imagery.
Long dissolves bringing an organic, flowing feel to the film, truly a memory piece motivated by intuition and emotion above all else.

Distant Voices, Still Lives moves so seamlessly with match cuts, long dissolves, and fades to white that it is easy to wind up lost in its timeline, not realising where the past stops and the present begins. This smooth editing, paired with Davies’ immaculate frames, brings a photobook quality to the film, blending the family’s memories to the point that we stop caring about their chronological order. Instead, all there is left for us to do is lose ourselves in this nostalgic, poetic ode to the love and struggles of Davies’ old-fashioned, working-class family.

A wonderful final shot paying off on the many tableaux throughout the film, the characters’ backs turned as if closing the book on this photo album.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is currently available to stream on Tubi.

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