This 1988 debut feature from Terence Davies cannot be summed up neatly. Yet I will try, if only because I absolutely want you to see this, if you haven’t. There are essentially two ways you can describe Distant Voices, Still Lives, which depicts the lives of a working-class English Catholic family over two distinct periods of their shared lives. The first one would be to call the movie a musical that will likely captivate people who claim to dislike musicals. The second description for the film is that it is a story of hope. This family lives in Liverpool, and they will likely never truly leave their public houses, homes, and grim, rainy streets. Yet they persist.
Obviously, they must, even with brutal patriarchs (the late, endlessly great Pete Postlethwaite), the onset of World War II, and a sense of diminished, tired community spirit. It’s one thing to simply go on. It’s something else entirely to find light that carries you just over the prying, hungry hands of just giving up, and seeking permanent rest in the abyss. The best people in this family continue on because they have to. They also use music as a way to connect to everything that is good about their world. In this sense, Distant Voices, Still Lives is an incredible approach to the musical. It will be unlike any musical you have ever seen in your life.
It isn’t a surprise that the film was a hit upon release. Critics immediately saw it as one of the most creative depictions of working class Catholicism ever brought to film. They also saw Davies take a truly fearless approach to deconstructing and perhaps understanding the bonds of dysfunctional family life. You won’t be surprised to find out that Davies made this film as a way of essentially dealing with these subjects as they related to his youth. There is not an ounce of romanticism for those days to be found here.
Yet there is hope. There is beauty. Davies shows us these things because of an unshakable belief in the notion that light can be found anywhere. It must be. You can’t continue otherwise. Distant Voices, Still Lives can be described as depressing. If you categorize it as such, fine. I’m willing to argue that you may want to watch the movie again. There are a lot of depressing aspects, to be sure, but if you stay with this moving story, you’ll get something more.
A movie as beautiful and compelling as this deserves the Blu-ray release recently given by Arrow Academy. The 4K restoration with original stereo audio will give you the best presentation possible for the film’s quiet visual splendor and musical wonderment. Commentaries and interviews infuse this very personal story with fascinating background information. Certainly, Distant Voices, Still Lives is the sort of thing that leaves you with many questions afterwards. It also leaves you with an odd selfishness. Davies has moved on to the next story, but we want to see this family again. If only once more.
Hopefully, by the dawn of the 60s, things are looking up.
Review copy provided
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