Terence Davies is perhaps the most important creative force to emerge from Liverpool since The Beatles. The veteran filmmaker, who only has a handful of films to his name, is the quintessential art cinema director who mixes art house visuals with kitchen sink realism and autobiographical narratives. His first full length film is an exercise in storytelling and makes a relatively straightforward drama seem something mystical but brutally honest at the same time.
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) is his most powerful work and easily the best evocation of Liverpool’s past ever captured on film. Family drama has never seemed so complex, at least visually with a story told out of order so that the viewer can witness the difference circumstance has on the emotional relationships within a family unit. With one minute a character can seem vile while the next they’re an adorably warm and funny Scouse persona.
The unit revolves around Pete Postlethwaite’s father character and his working class family in the 1940′s to the 1950′s. The times are changing and his controlling ways are becoming more and more out of date as his children grow up. His rage is violent and is his most obvious characteristic but he seems also caring and passionate about his family even if he does violently keep them in toe. The viewer is initially introduced at his death and then at his most violent but the constant switching between times show a layered and complex character rather than just a controlling bully (though his character is, the end, just that).
The rest of the family are just as well thought out and their identities seem defined by the actions of the father. The fact that the film explicitly shows this, and shows it successfully is yet another commendation for it. The mother figure is a quiet and repressed woman whose face tells of much hardship at the centre of the working class household. Yet, like her three children, they seem upset at their dad’s demise, adding detail to the roles that switch and vary depending on the year of their lives currently on screen.
With almost every cut, the time changes and years fly back and forth with dreamlike perplexity. This, in lesser hands, could make the film seem as distant as the title suggests but it ends up being anything but. Even with the chopping and changing of timelines, each segment is carefully controlled and is drawn together by its stunning use of music as well as believable dialogue which is both humours and unique.
More than any other film this writer has seen, Distant Voices, Still Lives uses music as a means of connecting the viewer to the characters. It also sets the tone for an image by defining the time or even simply adding warmth to a scene. It seems odd that people used to sing together in pubs and is a tradition portrayed with a sense of nostalgia that dominates many of light hearted scenes. It gives an emotional punch to an already powerful narrative and even its simple opening sequence, in which we hear the past but don’t see it, is soundtracked by a tear jerking song.
The changes the city has seen in recent years make Liverpool from the past seem like another world. This isn’t the Liverpool yet to be associated with modern imagery such as tracksuits or fake tan; this is a Liverpool still focussed on community and with a sense of making the most of hardship. Not that this doesn’t exist in the modern day city, but the form accurately portrayed in Distant Voices, Still Lives is conspicuous by its absence. It’s a theme Davies addressed further in his 2008 City of Culture commission Of Time And The City. In it Davies showed an old church which has been turned into a night club (Alma De Cuba) and this sums up best the changes that Distant Voices, Still Lives revels in. The laying to rest of old ghosts but still nostalgic for the lighter moments from one’s past no matter how dark the tough times became.