Distant Voices, Still Lives

Philip Larkin’s poem “Here”, which opens his 1964 collection The Whitsun Weddings, describes the long arc of an eastward train journey from London to Hull. This is a vision of England as manifested in the houses, streets, greenhouses and station platforms that exist for a moment in the window, the “isolate villages / Where removed lives / Loneliness clarifies”. The lives are imaginable yet unknowable; far away but exposed. Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives, released two decades later, echoes Larkin’s line in its title and takes place at the terminal of the westward line, in Liverpool. Like the poem, it takes place in the uncomfortable gap between closeness and distance; the intimacy of the neighbourly relation dissolves into the problem of opacity, the way that other lives are both close and far.

The film is an autobiographical work by Davies, who grew up the youngest of ten children to Irish-Catholic parents. This family – consisting of Dad (Pete Postlethwaite, in his breakout role), Mum (Freda Dowie) and their children Eileen (Angela Walsh), Tony (Dean Williams) and Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) – live in a terraced house in the 1950s, in which a dubious stillness is disturbed periodically by explosions of fury and violence from the father – what Davies has referred to, in relation to his own father, as “black rages”. The film actually consists of two films made two years apart, the first describing life under the rule of the father’s violence and control, and the second taking place after he has died – at what point, according to Davies, “we did begin to live, we had a proper life.”

The critical reception to films about the English working class tend to emphasise their Britishness, as if a panorama of terraced houses and suppressed rage distils something essential about nationhood. Davies, however, in an interview with the BFI, rejected the idea that his film belonged to a lineage of British filmmaking, as represented by parties where “you stand around with a rictus grin and you don’t know anybody”. Being outside is the point: “if there’s such a thing as British cinema,” he states, “I certainly don’t feel part of it. I never have.” Yet the film does describe something about nationhood, just as Larkin’s poem does, that a shared national identity contributes to a sense of intimacy while simultaneously stratifying people with social difference.

For all its compressed and tentative fearfulness, however, the lives at the centre of the film are not isolated or doomed – they exist within a rich network of friends and neighbours, the emotional importance of whom is expressed most clearly in the film’s music. The characters sing in the pub, around the piano, at home. The songs contain a microcosm of culture, and have – as Peter Bradshaw noted – “everything: drama, comedy, tragedy”. They are also expressive of a deep and abiding intimacy: the lives in the title may be isolated, to some extent, but the voices are, literally, run together; representing a form of cohesion, as viewed shimmeringly back through time.

Stream Distant Voices, Still Lives as part of our ninth season, Conception. 

Sign up here.