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Review: Distant Voices, Still Lives

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A 30th-anniversary re-release of writer-director Terence Davies’ WW2 and postwar era family drama. A semi-autobiographical film, drawn from memories of Davies’ childhood in Liverpool, Distant Voices, Still Lives is like a moving photo album, but one with the memories not quite in order. The title relates to its two chapters, filmed two years apart with the same cast and crew. Sepia-toned Distant Voices shows the Catholic family dealing with bombs of war and internal conflicts of living with a cruel, abusive father (Pete Postlethwaite).

Hidden Lives shows the family, and those closest to them in brighter colours, signalling the new hope of the 1950s. But it’s not a rose-tinted lens. Like memory itself, the structure is fragmented and non-linear. It jumps back and forth, echoing the sense of a family picking up the pieces after the trauma of violence.

It’s a series of vignettes in which the cast frequently break into songs that work as exposition to the characters’ feelings. The songs also reflect the mood and attitudes of the time: some are defiant, some are jubilant and some just plain racist. In fact, the film’s tagline is “ In memory, everything happens to music.”

The film frequently returns to the family’s front door as a literal and figurative framing device. Although there are plenty of broken dreams to contend with, especially for all the women in this film, it’s the mother (Freda Dowie) whos solitude leaves the biggest impression. It’s telling that she’s unnamed as anything other than mother. Her quiet suffering goes mostly unnoticed by those around her. A life given to others, with no agency of her own.

Although the dialogue and subject matter is the stuff of ‘kitchen sink’ social realism, there are moments of pure cinema. The film was voted the third greatest British film of all-time in a 2011 Time Out poll.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is in UK cinemas from 31st August.

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