It’s easy in some ways to consider Terence Davies’ 1988 feature Distant Voices to act as the fictional counterpart to his astounding 2008 documentary “Of Time and the City“, that focuses on his experiences growing up as an awkward, misfit child in 1950’s working class Liverpool. Voices however does not portray the personal dealings and trauma that Davies went through as a homosexual youth confined to employment within the conservative Catholic church; but instead revolves around the sad tale of an entombed family, confined by traditionalist ideology – one that Davies uses his personal experiences to draw up from and chillingly recreate.
The result is perhaps one of the most strikingly beautiful and poetic films to have been released in the last fifty years, not just for its stellar performances by the likes of Pete Posthlewaite; but also for the enticingly delicate way in which the story is unraveled to us, the audience. Distant Voices works as a two part story with Voices revolving around the world of a family ruled under the iron fist of a resoundingly disgusting father, (played by Posthlewaite) who tortures every member of the nuclear unit until his death. Set during the backdrop of the Blitz, Voices is an incredibly tough story to digest, opening slowly with an strikingly visual introduction to the world of working class Liverpudlian cobblestone streets; only to then cut to a scene of the father beating his eldest daughter for asking him if she can go to a dance.
Still Lives is the second part of the film and could be argued as being just as horrid as the first even with the fathers passing, since the oppressed family, now free of the confines of such patriarchal dominance, are still trapped within the oppressive world of 1950’s Britain. Both films act as a form of lyrical poetry. The use of songs is heavy and visually presented to wondrous effect, capturing the true sense of community that a Britain of the past once had. The “dull” routine of ordinary life for the poor of the country is also amazingly detailed, contributing to the overall believability of the world Davies wishes to show us.
You can almost sense whilst viewing Distant Voices that this is a work of great personal significance to the filmmaker. Nothing of what would be deemed as the ‘ordinary” from the time period is spared from the screen. The use of cinematography, editing and production design not only just recreates the world of a recovering yet still crippled England, but also makes you as a viewer feel welcomed by it. Davies’ incredibly astute use of well chosen songs from times gone by will put a smile of anyone’s face, whilst the growing attachment we begin to feel for the surviving family after Posthelwaite’s death eventually becomes almost unbearable in itself as the happiness the characters in such a personal story experience is only a faint smokescreen; blanketing the real horrors of the working class situation in such a bleak period. Perhaps Davies’ best fictional work, one immediately feels sorry that such a talented individual suffered so much before his voice could be heard; then again that could very well be the sad price to pay for such great emotional talent, no?