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DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES, 1988
Movie Review

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DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVESDISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES, 1988
Movie Reviews

Directed By Terence Davies.

Cast: Lorraine Ashbourne, Jean Boht, Carl Chase, Chris Darwin, Sally Davies, Frances Dell
Review by Dean Madden


SYNOPSIS:

On her wedding day, Eileen wishes that her late father was present. This moment sparks the reminiscing of the father, his barbaric and brutal oppressive behaviour and its effects from the different perspectives of family.

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REVIEW:

Jean-Luc Godard once said that ‘the British were never very good filmmakers’. Was this reaction derived from the British new wave movement not long after the French nouvelle vague? Whatever the reason, one thing is a dead cert; Godard was wrong. There are many amazing British filmmakers, of course, and many more greats have come along since that statement was made (Hitchcock, Lean, and Loach, for example). But if the great Godard is still to think this bizarre opinion and needed convincing otherwise, I would recommend watching Terrence Davies masterpiece, ‘Distant Voices/Still Lives’.

Davies himself hasn’t made many films (he only made ‘The Terrence Davies Trilogy’ prior to ‘Distant Voices/Still Lives’). This was all very low budget. In fact, you could say that the budget was too low for ‘Distant Voices/Still Lives’. Davies started filming the first half of his project (‘Distant Voices’) in 1986 – halfway through, he run completely out of money to complete his film. There was a two year wait until he was given the funds by Channel 4 and the UK Film Council so he could eventually finish the film he had started. In 1988 he finished the second half of his film, called ‘Still Lives’ (This might explain the receding hairlines and weight of a couple of the characters) ...

The film focuses with the family, Mother (Freda Dowie), Maisie (Lorrain Ashbourne), Eileen (Angela Walsh) and Tony (Dean Williams). It is the day of Eileen’s wedding and Eileen expresses “I wish me Dad were here” (this film carries with it a wonderful charm with its northern/Liverpudlian, immediately post-war setting). This statement sparks a series of memories of the Father (Pete Postlethwaite) prior to his death as experienced by the different members of the family as the subjectivity moves freely through the characters in an omniscient way. The fondness of which Eileen says these words acts as a type of facade, as the truth reveals the Father was anything but a saint. He was a brute; an emotional and physical abuser. As one scene demonstrates, Eileen sobs that she misses her Father and the audience experience another memory of Christmas time when the siblings were children. The Father looks lovingly at his sleeping children as he wishes “sleep well”, before another memory interrupts this positive memory with that of an enraged Father, as he lashes out violently during a family meal throwing the cutlery and table decorations on the floor and demanding his wife “clean this mess up!”, all whilst his children sit with him, petrified.

The second half of the film - ‘Still Lives’ – takes place after the events of the first half.; It is the day of Maisie’s child’s christening as they celebrate through the day. As well as acting as a celebration, it also focuses on the mundane and sometimes malnourished relationships the female characters fall into (the film ends with a beautiful scene as Tony, standing on his own outside the house, crying uncontrollably – suggesting his emotion is caused by his role as a possible contributor to unhappy marriages).

This film has many a stunning performance. Each of the actors, who play the family members, play their roles with such wonderful subtlety, which really oozes the idea that they all are a victim to the Father’s wicked ways. Which brings me onto Pete Postlethwaite’s performance - his portrayal as the Father is vicious (the scenes of his violent behaviour towards the people he loves is barbaric and heartbreaking; it can be a very difficult task to watch and not become affected by what is being shown on screen). For every inch of passion the audience may have against the father, Postlethwaite deserves that extra bit more credit as he delivers what I consider to be one of the most incredible performances on celluloid.

This film is probably in need of multiple viewings. Not because the film is a masterpiece (which it is), but because the narrative is peculiar. It doesn’t run chronologically, but also it doesn’t run at all coherently. The narrative works in a way very similar way to how memory functions (which would explain all the links to photography in the film). One single memory triggers a whole series of other memories that are relatable in a non-linear way, the timeline of memories in the film is very much and intentionally unclear due to the rhizome-like structure on the narrative; we jump back and forth fluidly throughout the timeline of the different character’s memories.

The films’ other links with photography and Lacanian theory has ensured it as a staple for many-a-film theory lecture (Lord knows I’ve seen it many times, but it’s been a pleasure).With “Distant Voices/Still Lives”, Davies has made a film very much set in a harsh reality whilst reminding us of our love for cinema and the way. This can be a difficult film to ‘follow’ or ‘grasp’ initially but once its narrative style is understood, it really is a truly remarkable film

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DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES


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