Terence Davies’ mesmerizing memory film, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (Westside Pavilion), becomes its own kind of poetry: taut, referential, inward, brilliant. Although it is set among the unremarkable flats of Liverpool, the place is stamped by Davies’ profoundly original vision and sounds; its framing is painterly and deliberate. And just as you think you have its moves all doped out, a scene of such shocking beauty flashes before you that it takes your breath away.
Hardly any wonder that the film arrives with a fistful of critics’ and festival prizes to its credit. It’s two films actually, around the same subject and with the same cast, made after a two-year break when the money dried up at one source and was finally found from another.
The turf that Davies prowls so intimately is the Liverpool of the 1940s and ‘50s where he grew up, one of a terrified, loving family with an increasingly brutish father and a constant, desperate mother. “Distant Voices” has that father as its center, up through the marriage of Eileen, the older sister. As it flows imperceptibly into “Still Lives” only the father’s influence remains and we are present for a second wedding, of Tony, the only son. Davies tells his story impressionistically, letting it out in measured amounts, its celebrations and its horrors set to cheery sing-alongs at the pubs and to songs heard on the radio. Davies intends his film as an homage to his mother, his family and to a time, barely remembered now, where the radio brought in the whole world or, in Davies’ case, everything in the world that seemed good.
Dennis Potter also uses period music, but differently, with a sense of irony or even vitriol, so that out of his actors’ mouths come sickly-sweet recorded voices, pouring their message of uplift and inspiration when there is no hope to be had. You can be sure that Davies, too, knows exactly how potent cheap music can be--and how heartening.
His mother character (Freda Dowie, magnificently simple) will face the camera and sing in a sweet, plain voice, “I’ve Got the Blues When It Rains,” as she considers the emptiness of her house without her children, Eileen, Tony and Maisie. Or an unseen, bass voice, which may even be Paul Robeson’s, sings “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Takin’ Names,” as the hearse arrives for the funeral of this fearsome father (Peter Postlethwaite, memorable from “The Dressmaker”).
Davies uses songs sometimes as counterpoint: the soaring dreadfulness of “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” is on the screen as Maisie’s husband and his brother fall from their scaffolding at work, in the film’s most startling moment. Sometimes they’re used as comment (“Taking a Chance on Love,” “Stone Cold Dead in De Market,” “Oh, My Papa”); sometimes they’re pure release for the pub scouses (“Buttons and Bows,” “I Love the Ladies”) and sometimes even as a ribald joke (“Up a Lazy River”), as three beer-filled husbands relieve themselves in the dark outside the pub.
Davies’ open shutter records scene after scene impassively, but by the time the emotions hit us cumulatively, the wallop is immense. One of the young daughters watches her mother wash the second-story windows, sitting outside on the sill, and says an anxious litany to herself, “Don’t fall, Mum, don’t fall.” Their father tenderly decorates a tiny Christmas tree with a popcorn and cranberry garland, and tiptoes in to see all three of his sleeping children’s faces. And the next day at Christmas dinner, for reasons we never learn, he pulls the tablecloth until the traditional chocolate Christmas log and all the dishes are on the floor, then thunders at his wife to clean it up.
What seems astonishing is that this history--which is partly about yearning for parents one never had, and partly a catalogue of emotional brutalization--also manages to convey a sense of family as a shelter, real as a hand-knit sweater and as comforting.
Davies seems to have a singular sense of the way these people battle the pinched conditions of their lives, the women particularly. Their weapons are camaraderie; a cheerful stoicism, like Mum’s, or an innately feisty flair like Micky’s (Debi Jones), best girlfriend to Eileen (Angela Walsh), and the only one who can get round Eileen’s dad. Davies also suggests that working-class tradition will separate even these closest of friends once they’re married. A wife may joke in the pub about “25 years with mouth almighty,” but after Micky marries she tells Eileen, apologetically, “ ‘ees funny about having people over” and you can almost hear the doors slam shut.
All the conundrums of families are here, the inconsistencies for which there are no answers. We see a rebellious teen-age daughter being beaten as she is made to scrub a basement floor, and that same daughter on her wedding day, crying for the father who beat her. In one of the film’s wrenchingly moving scenes, Tony (Dean Williams), overcome by a sense of love and loss, sobs unrestrainedly on the porch the night he is married, too, yet we’ve seen that his encounters with his father have been even more ferocious.
Although its impeccable look remains constant--memory without the usual soft burnishing, as though Lyle’s Golden Syrup had been poured over all--the film was shot by two cameramen. Davies’ usual cinematographer and his succinct editor, William Diver, did “Distant Voices"; Patrick Duval shot “Still Lives.” The film is actually Davies’ first feature. His earlier three films, although intended as a trilogy, were short pieces from 25 to 45 minutes, made over an eight-year span.
With “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” in one leap, Davies joins the ranks of the great poet-film makers: Paul Cox, Andrei Tarkovsky, the Robert Altman of “Images” and “Three Women,” the NicolascRoeg of “Bad Timing,” the Alexei Gherman of “My Friend Ivan Lapshin.” Their films are never easy the first time out; they grow with each seeing, but they are never less than magnificently rewarding.
‘DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES’
An Avenue Pictures’ release of a British Film Institute presentation in association with Film Four International. Producer Jennifer Howarth. Writer/director Terence Davies. Camera William Diver, Patrick Duval. Art directors Miki van Zwanenberg, Jocelyn James. Editor Diver. Exeutive producer Colin MacCabe. Costumes Monica Howe. Sound Moya Burns, Colin Nicolson. With Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones, Marie Jelliman, Andrew Scholfield.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned: Some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).