Review: Distant Voices, Still Lives

Distant Voices, Still Lives screenshot

Year: 1988 | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Simply put, Distant Voices, Still Lives is a beautiful little revelation of a film. The only Terence Davies film I had seen before this was The Long Day Closes (1992), which I consider a masterpiece and one of my favorite films of all time, and as is often the case when the first film I see of a filmmaker’s speaks to me so vividly, I had both been looking forward and hesitant to check out more of Davies’ work for many years, in the slight fear that none of his other films would affect me as much as that one. Now that Criterion Channel has introduced a retrospective of Davies’ work, however, it seems as though I had finally run out of excuses, especially since it is Pride Month and Davies is one of our most esteemed gay filmmakers.

So, I tried to go into Distant Voices, Still Lives with somewhat tempered expectations, and I’m happy to say that the film sucked me in from the very first moments and rarely let me go through its entire runtime. Thanks to the now-defunct popular YouTube channel, “Every Frame a Painting” has become an overused phrase when discussing effective cinematography in films, but here it’s almost literally true: many shots, especially in the Distant Voices half of the film, begin with nearly static arrangements of people, locations or objects, as if the viewer is flipping through old photographs and then, subsequently, experiencing the memories that are associated with those aging images. This, coupled with the singing of traditional English and Irish folk and drinking songs by the cast and a non-linear approach that gives us but mere fragments of the characters’ childhoods, adolescences and young adulthoods, allows Davies to paint an incredibly empathetic picture of his upbringing in 1940s Liverpool.

This setting of the stage is perhaps why the second half of the film, Still Lives, is such a moving portrayal of the effects that childhood abuse, the death of their father (Pete Postlethwaite), poverty, and war had on shaping the characters into the adults that they became. In some ways, the siblings’ lives (and that of their mother [Freda Dowie]) improve after the death of their callous, violent, and tyrannical father, but that relief only goes so far when the strains of the war-time economy stretch on for years and years, and the women find that the men that they married aren’t necessarily much different than their father had been, and Tony (Davies’ character autobiographical character, played by Dean Williams) finds that falling in line and marrying a woman that he doesn’t love is the path of least resistance to, if not a happy life, at the very least a somewhat tolerable one.

Indeed, Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of the most empathetic films about the plights of women living in the height of the patriarchy ever made by a man, which one would have to think is in large part thanks to Davies’ experiences growing up as a gay man during that same time. Feminism and homosexuality are never outright mentioned during the film — likely because they are concepts that barely even existed in WWII-era England, especially to working-class families like the Davies’ — but they inform almost every moment contained within, especially in the second half. The women lament in their disappointment in finding that all men are essentially the same: domineering, entitled, bullheaded, unwilling to lift a finger around the house, sometimes violent and mean; and the marriages that each sister (and their friends) enter could hardly be called “happy.” And Tony (read: Davies) is in a unique position to commiserate with this, having entered a marriage of his own built on a lie surrounding a secret that he dare not utter, for fear of what may happen to him if it ever got out. 

I’ve always felt that there’s been a connection between the feminist and gay rights movements, but it seems that as queer rights become more accepted and mainstream, that many gay men are losing that empathetic connection to the women in our lives and the societal plights that they struggle against even today. But the status quo that we are fighting against perpetuated mainly by wealthy straight white men is and always has been one and the same, a truth that has never been more evident than by the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the precedent of which could have rippling effects on the queer community, and all minority communities, for that matter. Splintering minorities off from each other by offering bread crumbs to make them complacent and/or convincing them that their fight is uniquely theirs and that the rights of other minority groups are in direct conflict of their own is a tool used by the establishment to keep minorities fighting against each other instead of uniting together to fight the status quo. We have to remember that our oppressor — and thus, our fight — is ultimately the same, and the way that we do that is by having empathy for one another, the kind of empathy that Davies so adeptly displays with his film here.

But anyway, I digress. At the end of the day, I’m happy to say that Distant Voices, Still Lives easily lives up to the standard set for me by The Long Day Closes, and helps cement Terence Davies as a filmmaker that could easily be counted amongst my favorites if some of his other films are of similar quality. I can’t wait to check out his other offerings currently streaming on the Criterion Channel in the coming days to see if that prediction comes to pass.

Language: English
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 1 hr. 24 min.
Rating: PG-13

Director: Terence Davies
Starring: Freda Dowie, Pete Postlethwaite, Angela Walsh, Lorraine Ashbourne, Dean Williams

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