Character and plot are largely dispensed with in this film. What you get instead is the evocation of a time and place through images and songs. I'm amazed it was ever made – a film built entirely on the film-maker's personal memories of growing up in Liverpool in the 1940s and 50s. And they are very obviously memories. Many shots are composed like photographs, the family sitting still waiting for the shutter. The camera moves only very slowly and determinedly, sometimes literally shifting the audience from one scene to the next. One great example is the pan down the street into darkness that arrives at the family praying at an indoor shrine surrounded by candles. Immersion is resisted at every point. We drift through the world the film sets before us, but we are never part of it.
Pete Postlethwaite's violence is introduced early. Terrence Davies knows to put the most shocking scene at the beginning so we know exactly what's going on and how bad it is. But explanation or insight is avoided: what does a child understand of the roots of evil? This is a time when such behaviour remained unquestioned and accepted as part of the fabric of reality. Revolt and rebuke, when it arrives at the end of the film, is quickly shut down (although the daughter's forwardness contrasts with the mother's silence, and is a sign of things to come).
Although dissent is repressed, the community finds its voice in song. The film is full of them. People sing at weddings or when the bombs are falling, happy or sad or bored. At the end of the film we see the crowd of unbrellas outside a cinema, and the crowded screening inside. In another scene, someone shouts for a record to be put on to cheer everyone up. One of the themes of the film seems to be the cultural revolution brought about by the recording of sound and moving image. One scene that particularly struck me is the babysitter waiting outside an open door to be invited in – she starts singing to herself, and ends up doing a little dance in the doorway. What would I do in her situation now? Probably twiddle with my MP3 player whilst flicking through twitter. Boredom having been comprehensively annihilated, we've almost forgotten what it was like when you had to make your own fun. This film serves as a museum exhibit for a lost culture before recording and storing entertainment was possible.
Why Distant Voices, Still Lives? The film is composed of two sections shot two years apart. And while inter-titles come up to introduce the first as Distant Voices and the second as Still Lives, the film appears to me to be a unified whole: voices and stills – songs and images – from (a personal) history recreated and frozen in amber. The distance is that of memory, in which human lives are preserved unchanging. Davies is using the instruments that destroyed the customs and community of his youth to document it, and I suspect the title is drawing attention to this central irony.