December 17, 2018
Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives, is one bleak story, and yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving. Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family is autobiographical as well, and this is a significant source of its power.
Stars Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie, Angela Walsh.
There was so much critics buzz at the time (as well as subsequent awards) over Terence Davies’ remarkable remembrance Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988 that I’m a little surprised to read it characterized by some as a film that kind of slipped under the radar. That it did with the public (or at least non-British public) was probably a given; despite pockets of relief, this is one bleak story that no small number of cheer-up narrative asides can transform into a feel-good 88 minutes. And yet its portrayal of Liverpool formative years during the ’40s and into the mid-’50s is remarkable — and, consistently moving.
This radar element is an important part of the movie’s history because when Time Out magazine initiated a poll to determine the hundred greatest British films ever, there was something of a lo-and-behold surprise: Voices finished third behind Don’t Look Now and The Third Man (no knock on Now, which I’ve always liked, but better than The Third Man? Well, that’s a brain-stumper for another day). To be sure, there isn’t anything really like Lives, unless you count the writer-director’s The Long Day Closes, which deals with an ostracized youth growing up in the same era and milieu when he is both Catholic and gay.
Lives is Davies’ look-back at a contender for eternity’s most dysfunctional family and is autobiographical as well (and heavily so), and this is a significant source of its power. Amid the abundance of bonus extras that the consistently first-rate Arrow provides here, an unusually personable filmmaker notes that many of his narrative alterations were purely financial; in real life, he came along 10th in the family, which means nine siblings, though Davies could only afford three for the screen, who stand in for the others. We see right off that this is going to be an impressionistic treatment of the past, what with the way Davies holds his camera stationary for an unusual length of time during an opening staircase scene. Add to color processing that’s somewhere between extraordinary and singular in making his images look like a moving photo album, the product of painstaking labors by the director and his designers.
A performer whose facial structure and, of course, acting ability enabled him to be cast as both amusing oddballs and irredeemable cruds, Pete Postlethwaite plays his family patriarch as the psychotic Davies says he was in real life, and this is not an ambiguous point. We see him, for instance, beating one of the girls with a either a broom or mop (and sans mercy) when she’s scrubbing the floor, an episode Davies says he was too young to witness but one the sister/victim says absolutely did happen.
A horror he did witness — though it’s not in the film because Davies concedes no viewer would ever believe it — was his mother leaping out of a window with an infant in her arms because she couldn’t take it anymore, only be saved by a chance passerby below who was directly in their trajectory. And there’s another scene where dad and kids are eating dinner when, out of he blue, he yanks the tablecloth from the table and the food and dishes go flying. Davies says this one scene stands for the countless times it happens.
Still, the movie isn’t relentless misery — and certainly brightens some with dad’s death in the early ’50s — which would be dramatically pointless, to say nothing of un-fundable. The major point here, other than the immediate story at hand, is how much movies of the day and especially pop music can help get you through dreadful times; at least some of our selective memory about the “good old days” has a lot to do with the songs that captured the time — in this case at family events (marriages are big here) and in the pubs.
The songs here are exceedingly well chosen and hardly boilerplate choices, which means they must have heavy personal meaning; one chain-rattling juxtaposition connects Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Taking a Chance on Love” with a family beating. Another (the previously unknown-to-me Brit pop “Finger of Suspicion”) strikes me as an almost perfect evoker of immediately pre-rock pop (sub-category: “dreamy”) from singer Dickie Valentine, who ended up being killed in a 1961 head-on collision.
Regarding the Blu-ray, Davies does the voiceover commentary and appears on a stage interview of a half-hour’s duration. There’s also featurette with art director Miki van Zwanenberg, plural essays (one is called Bittersweet Symphony, a title that pretty well describes the film itself) and three vintage BFI National Archive short subjects about Liverpool, including a 1939 one about slum clearance that makes you appreciate the Beatles all the more. These docs remind me of the backdrop to a movie I love: 1941’s early Deborah Kerr breakthrough Love on the Dole, which takes place in Greater Manchester (Salford) but deals with a not dissimilar how-do-I-get-out-of-here existence.
This is a really impressive release from what I’m starting to think of as “good old Arrow” — taken from a 4K restoration by the BFI, with Davies’ input. It cannot have been easy getting this level of specialized color just right on a home release, but I saw Distant Lives at a New York critics screening when it came out, and it replicates my memories.