A 4K restoration of out gay filmmaker Terence Davies’ landmark 1988 feature debut “Distant Voices, Still Lives” gets a week-long run at the Metrograph starting August 31. The film, a bleak and lyrical drama, tells the story of a working class family in 1950s Liverpool in two parts. The first half, “Distant Voices,” features the death of the father (Pete Postlewaite) and how his wife (Freda Dowie), and children, Eileen (Angela Walsh), Tony (Dean Williams), and Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne), remember him. The second half, “Still Lives,” which is set and shot two years later, focuses on the children getting married and, in some cases, starting their own families.
The filmmaker based the story on his own family and memories, though there is no queer content; Tony is straight. The film is actually the second in Davies’ autobiographical trilogy, preceded by “Trilogy,” a compilation of three shorts — “Children” (1976), “Madonna and Child” (1980), and “Death and Transfiguration” (1983) — and followed, in 1992, by the feature “The Long Day Closes.”
Davies shoots “Distant Voices, Still Lives” in a sepia-tone that conveys both a sense of nostalgia and emphasizes how colorless the characters’ lives are. The filmmaker uses still shots and pregnant pauses to create a tableau that emphasizes just how stifling it was to be part of this family. The feel is palpable and relentless. Davies offers brief moments of release by having the characters sing to escape their troubles.
Music not only triggers the characters’ memories, but it also provides a way for them to express their emotions. The film’s dozen-plus songs — some sung by characters, other heard on the soundtrack — are all effectively employed. When the family matriarch is hanging out of a window she is cleaning, she recalls the reasons for marrying her husband as Ella Fitzgerald sings, “Taking a Chance on Love.” However, as the song continues to play, her husband’s abusive behavior is shown, delivering a powerful counter-message.
Likewise, during a tense air raid, the family and neighbors gather in a shelter, where young Eileen is asked to sing. Her thin voice warbles “Roll Out the Barrel,” an ironic contrast to the fear everyone is experiencing.
The first half of “Distant Voices, Still Lives” depicts the physical, psychic, and emotional abuse the father inflicted on the family. Maisie must scrub the cellar floor if she wants to go to a dance, and Dad denies Tony’s request to have a drink with him. When Eileen wants to take work in a resort with her friends, he makes her feel such guilt that she fights back tears on the way to the job. These painful moments are all artfully composed and beautifully acted. Davies’ accomplishment is that he can communicate so much by showing so little. The impressionistic approach packs a tremendous emotional punch. One of the few tranquil moments has the three young children spying on their father as he sings and whistles “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” while grooming a horse.
A scene late in the film illustrates Davies’ skill in creating meaning by juxtaposing contrasting images. As “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing” plays on the soundtrack and cinemagoers are crying at the film of the same name, Davies cuts to an image of two men falling through space and through windows. The scene is as gorgeous and stark as it is violent, but this is a film full of beauty, starkness, and violence. It is then revealed that one of the men is Maisie’s husband, George (Vincent Maguire). He has fallen off scaffolding and is now in a hospital recovering, producing more tears for the family.
Even Tony’s wedding is a somber affair: there is nary a smile among the handful of guests or even the couple, which is oddly ominous.
All of this is not to say the film lacks bright moments, but most of them are courtesy of Micky (Debi Jones), Eileen’s friend who can sweet talk Eileen’s father into letting Eileen go to a dance or beg for five more minutes to have a cigarette outside the door at curfew. Micky displays a vivacity lacking in the rest of the characters, and her rendition of “Buttons and Bows” is a highlight. But there seems to be a pall cast over her life, as well, as she and Eileen, talking outside a pub one night, realize that their close friendship may become more distant now that they are both married and at the mercy of their husbands. It’s an especially poignant moment in a film full of powerful scenes.
One of the most intense episodes has the father ruining Christmas dinner in spectacular fashion, destroying the meal and then insisting his wife clean up the mess. Watching him suddenly seethe with rage and then act on it is starkly upsetting.
“Distant Voices, Still Lives” may be airless at many moments, but it delivers an emotionally authenticity despite it deliberate, even artificial staging. Davies’ talent is to make viewers feel every one of its harsh moments.
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES | Directed by Terence Davies | Arrow Films | Opens Aug. 31 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Hester & Canal Sts. | metrograph.com