Distant Voices, Still Lives Blu-ray Review: Accurately Captures the Battle of the Sexes

A minimalist, but masterful portrait of harrowing family dynamics.
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Stories about troubled families doesn't hit cinema too often, but when they're done well, such as in Rachel Getting Married, Ordinary People, Hannah and Her Sisters, and A Family Thing, they can hit hard. Such a case is director Terrence Davies' 1988 breaktrough masterpiece, Distant Voices, Still Lives, which brilliantly tells an all-too-real harrowing story, but with music, humor, and unsentimental truth.

Loosely based on Davies's own upbringing, the film is told in two parts of the lives of a family in 1940s/'50s Liverpool, where siblings Tony (Dean Williams) and Maisie (Lorriane Ashbourne), along with their mother (Freida Dowie), gather for their older sister Eileen's (Angela Walsh) wedding. You think it would be a happy occasion, but memories of a not-so-happy childhood surface and they're forced to look back to the past as they try to move on in the present. Part One ('Distant Voices'), is told through flashbacks of their coming-of-age with their brutal father (Pete Postlethwaite) as he rules and abuses them and their mother with an iron fist. Part Two ('Still Lives') deals with their lives as adults looking for the love and compassion they didn't receive from their father. Through births, marriages, and deaths, they sorrowly look towards their future with pain, but also with hope.

What Davies does so marvelously, through musical interludes (which take place throughout the film), is that he accurately captures the battle of the sexes. Most of the men, except for Tony, are boorish and unkempt. The women, though put-upon, quietly and not-so quitely, dream of better lives but are forced to accept the current ones as they are. Lead with a terrifying performance by the late Postlethwaite, the others are just as terrific. Dowie as the mom gives us a portrayal of quiet strength and grace; Williams, Ashbourne, and Walsh as the three siblings are wonderful. Their facial expressions and movements give us the glimpse into their characters' inner and outer turmoil with deft ability. Everyone shines.

This would have made an amazing release by Criterion, but the folks at Arrow definitely step up to the plate with their release this landmark in British Cinema history. The new 4K restortation is glorious, as the picture and sound are better than ever. The stacked special features include:

  • Director's commentary with Davies
  • 2007 interview with Davies, conducted by film critic Geoff Andrew
  • Interview with art director Miki van Zwanenberg
  • Introduction by Mark Kermode
  • Images from Liverpool, three films from the BFI National Film Archive: Homes for Workers (1939), Liverpool 1941 (1941), and Worker and War-Front No. 3 (1942)
  • Brand new Q&A with Davies, conducted by Andrew recorded at the BFI Southbank
  • Image Gallery
  • Theatrical and re-release trailers

Completing the release is a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionision. It also has a collector's booklet with a new essay by critic Christina Newland, and archive essays by Beryl Bainbridge, Adrian Danks, and Adam Barker.

This is basically one of the best experiences in my film life, and such a vivid work in Davies' canon. I definitely look forward to more of his movies, and movies like this in general. Films of this calaber can be taken for granted, which is disappointing, because filmgoers really miss out on great cinema.

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