Sunday, 7 November 2010

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies' contemplative vision of his upbringing in 1940s/1950s Liverpool.

I saw Of Time and the City not that long ago - Davies' homage to his home town of Liverpool and the changes that the city has seen from the '50s onwards. A lovely sort-of-documentary but in my mind not quite as good as a much earlier BFI documentary on Northern cities - Morning in the Streets. Anyhow, Distant Voices really exceeded my expectations and is also a deeply emotional film.

The film starts with us looking at an ordinary terraced house, fairly drab, nothing extraordinary. As the camera takes us inside the house and along the hallway to look at the stairs, we see a woman come to the bottom of the stairs and call up to her three children to come down for breakfast. We then expect to see the children tumble down the stairs but instead we hear their voices and footsteps but see nothing. This immediately said to me that this film is about memory; that sensation of being in a place full of memories and senses coming back to you - words said, noises heard.

It also gave me a hint that this was going to be a non-linear narrative. It is a film full of tableaux and vignettes, all centering around a working class, Catholic family and the big events that frame their lives, the births, marriages and deaths. Each event is staged like an act in a play, kind of out context of the rest of the film, but each episode is like this with only images and music threading everything together rather than the standard voiceover or necessary explanatory scenes. This format gives the film lots of spaces and silences, allowing the viewer to slow down, absorb the images and contemplate on their own history, their own life.

The theatrical feel extends to the settings and surroundings, lighting and sound direction. Many scenes include shafts of slightly unreal looking sunlight coming through windows and very little or no extraneous noise in the street scenes. The colour palette is very drab and washed out in the first half, with even rosy wallpaper looking pale and dated. The second half warms up (as explained in the interview with the director in the DVD extras) as the story becomes slightly warmer, though to say why may ruin the film.

The story itself is about Davies' family and is one of the most emotive and down to earth depictions of domestic violence I've seen for a long time. There's no Nil by Mouth De Niro-esque ramblings from Dad Pete Postlethwaite in this film. We don't get an explanation as to why this man is an unpredictable tyrant towards his family, we simply see the erratic, violent outbursts and the fallout. Reminding me as it did of part of my own family one generation back, I found this a very uncomfortable watch but perhaps brought me closer to understanding what my own grandmother must have gone through.

In a broader way, I think Davies does a great job in showing how men and women experience life differently, especially at that particular time and how the expectations of family, church and community had a tight grip on people's lives. He also evokes a real spirit of place, with the characters singing songs and using language of a very specific location and era. In this way, Davies has created a wonderful document of memories of his early family life, but one that gives us many universal truths.

Next to watch will be his follow up film The Long Day Closes.

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