Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

One of my most enduring memories of being a child in elementary school centers around the upright piano in the grade 5/6 classroom. In a sort of benign haunting, it would possess our homeroom teacher (also the principal of the school) whenever he sat down before it. A large, affable man, the touch of those 88 keys would steal away the stern disciplinarian who ran the classroom ship and leave us in the willing thrall of a barrelhouse refugee from a Klondike saloon. Lord, how that man could play! And, Lord, how he’d make us sing!

You get a line and I’ll get a pole,


You get a line and I’ll get a pole,


You get a line and I’ll get a pole,

We’ll go down to the crawdad hole,

Honey, sugar baby mine.

Did any of us know what a “crawdad” was? I doubt it. But as we gathered around the piano those songs—“Down in the Valley,” “The Blue-Tail Fly,” “Clementine,” “Red River Valley” and dozens of others—became, briefly or permanently, and indispensable part of our lives.

Terence Davies’ film Distant Voice, Still Lives (1988) is an astonishing film about another time (the 40s and 50s) and place (Liverpool, England) where popular songs linked people together more closely than the awkward words they spoke in affection or anger or shame. Distant Voices, Still Lives is most definitely not a musical, and yet there are more songs in this film than in almost any musical I know. Three dozen songs heard as background to deaths and losses, picked up with a casually cruel randomness on the radio (a battered wife, face & arms covered in bruises, painfully irons clothes to the tune of “Taking a Chance on Love”), or sung by the main characters in pubs, at weddings, in jail cells, and even while (“Up a Lazy River”) peeing in alleyways.

Davies and the actors he worked with make us care about all of the people in his film. And because we care about them, we remember the songs they choose to sing: “I Get the Blues When It’s Raining,” “If You Knew Susie Like I Know Susie,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “O Waly, Waly,” “The Finger of Suspicion,” “Barefoot Days,” “My YiddisheMama.” When daily life is marked by war, domestic violence, alcoholism, struggle for a decent life, and failed dreams, Tin Pan Alley lyrics seem as universal as Greek tragedy and every bit as potent. And let’s not forget the background music: Harold Darkes’ “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Benjamin Brittan’s “Hymn to the Virgin,” Vaughan William’s “Pastoral Symphony.” “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Taking Names” is the scariest spiritual since the Reverend Gary Davis’s “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” If a soundtrack for this film exists, I want it. Right now.

In composition, Distant Voices, Still Lives is like a somber family photograph album that comes complete with its own soundtrack, but whose binding has come undone. Each photograph is beautifully composed and it; we’re just not sure about the chronology. The film almost demands two viewings: one to put the pages in order in one’s head, and the second to appreciate individual scenes as they become charged with our understanding of what has gone before or will happen after. I have no favorite scenes in Distant Voices. Every page, every photograph in this album is irreplaceable.

There is much more that is special about the film. Freda Dowie infuses the role of the mother with incredible dignity. Pete Postlewaithe is both terrifying & pathetic as the father whose only eloquence is rage. Angela Walsh, Lorraine Ashbourne, and Dean Williams are utterly convincing in their portrayal of siblings bound by love and hate. Also wonderful is Debi Jones as Walsh’s “bleedin’ dance-mad” friend, Micky. And Uncle “I switched the light off. I don’t know what I’m doin’ right or wrong-o” Ted, who has one of the strangest cameo appearances I’ve ever seen. Hardly household names, each of these actors turns in the kind of performance the Academy Awards are supposed to honour.

Sometimes the artifice that’s a part of exceptional works of art is obvious at first glance. Sometimes, however, artifice is felt before it is seen. Such is the case with Davies’ film. The first time I watched it, something about his use of the camera intrigued me—but I couldn’t articulate it. On second viewing, I think I understood. The camera in Distant Voices, Still Lives is immobile. It almost never pans. And in the rare moments when it does pan, it moves through time instead of space. In scene after scene, the camera is simply there. There in the room, there at the window, there sitting in front of a door looking out, or before a door looking in. I kept picturing one of those old-fashioned photographers, head under a hood behind a big camera on a tripod out in the street, with the whole family poised on the verandah, waiting for the flash. Such “motionless” photography simultaneously gives the individual characters in Distant Voices considerable dignity, and heightens the sense of claustrophobia which cripples them. “The joy you find here you borrow / You cannot keep it long it seems.”

Sort of like the movies selling us dreams, and real life stealing them away. In one of Distant Voices’ eeriest overlays, surrealist umbrellas lead the viewer into a theatre where the two sisters cry as they watch Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing. Then there is an exquisitely choreographed shot of two men falling through what might be real or might be cinematic space. Followed by the sight of one sister crying at the bedside of her husband, critically injured in a fall from a scaffold. The only thing we can be sure is not an illusion is the pain.

Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Sadly, this is another film I’ve been unable to get a hold of for another look. It goes on the list. Feel free to check back in later.

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Terence Davies
Actors: Freda Dowie, Pete Postlewaithe, Angela Walsh, Dean Williams, Lorraine Ashbourne, Debi Jones
Year: 1988
Original Review: April 1994


La Cinémathèque française

The main point of interest here (unless you happen to live in Paris and can access the Cinémathèque’s incredible library, you lucky devil!), is the site’s collection of about a 1000 video & written essays on cinema. You’ll find them listed under the subheading “Découvertes.” When I last checked in, the site featured 7 articles & videos posted to celebrate French actress Danielle Darrieux’s 100th birthday. There were also features on the films of Jean Eustache, the American & British film versions of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, and a long article on the great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu.

24 Movie Soundtracks You Need to Hear

Here is creator Noah Berlatsky’s introduction to his diverting website: “Best of movie soundtrack lists often focus on a relatively narrow range of well-known examples; the Beatles, Tarantino films, Cameron Crowe films, Hollywood musicals and more Beatles. I’ve tried to go a bit further afield here, not because there’s anything wrong with the tried and true, but just because music for moving images includes such a mind-bogglingly large range of material that it seems a shame not to go rambling a bit. To make the task a bit easier for myself I’ve excluded compilation soundtracks and stuck to ones with original music. And I haven’t arranged them in any particular order; if you want to rank them best to worst, you’ll have to do it yourself.” There’s something for everyone here: R.D. Burman’s Bollywood classic Apna Desh, Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black, Paul Giovanni’s The Wicker Man, etc., etc. There’s a video clip from each film, and if you start following the embedded links in the site and on YouTube don’t plan on getting anything done for the rest of the day. Time well spent, I say.

Films Worth Talking About:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Thin Blue Line, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Married to the Mob, Bird, The Bear (l’Ours), Another Woman, Trop belle pour toi!, The Accidental Tourist, Die Hard, Life is a Long Quiet River, Hairspray, Three Men and a Baby, The Big Blue, Big, A World Apart, A Short Film About Killing, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dead Ringers, A Fish Called Wanda, Salaam Bombay!, The Accused, The Last Temptation of Christ, Camille Claudel, The Vanishing, Mississippi Burning, Rain Man, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Bagdad Café, Beetlejuice, [Distant Voices, Still Lives], la Petite voleuse, Young Einstein, Scrooged, Drowning by Numbers, Coming to America, Cocktail, The Lair of the White Worm, Running on Empty, My Stepmother is an Alien, la Lectrice, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

The Bigger Picture

Films: Pennies from Heaven (1981), Once Were Warriors (1994), Hear My Song (1991) [you might need this one after a long day’s journey into night]

Music: Reverend Gary Davis, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”


The Word on the Street

“In an interview, Terence Davis has stated that he had to tone down the reality of the story because as depressing as the film is, the “real thing” would be unendurable for audiences. We have all seen rage on the screen. Brando, De Niro, and Pesci, have had their moments, but the two actors who truly frightened me, and left me literally trembling, were Temuera Morrison, as the Maori father in “Once Were Warriors”, a film from New Zealand, and Peter Postlethwaite, as the father in “Distant Voices”. These actors hit something visceral in me, that my therapists never even guessed at.”


“English screenwriter and director Terence Davies feature film debut which he also wrote, was originally made for television and is inspired by his family memories growing up in a working-class family in Liverpool, England during the 1940s. It consists of the two films “Distant Voices” and “Still Lives” which were made two years apart with the same crew. While “Distant Voices” portrays the main characters growing up in Britain in the 1940s during World War II, “Still Lives” portrays them as grown-ups in Britain in the early 1950s after the war.”

Sindre Kaspersen

“…[I]found it sometimes very hard to sit through because it struck more than a few painful chords in my own memory of my family when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s. Indeed.
My continuing impression is that men of that era, not only in the UK and US as well as elsewhere, were really almost clinically unreflective in that they were so used to being tolerated and getting away with murder that they were nearly incapable of seeing themselves in anything resembling a true light.
How women both sustained family life by themselves and because of their friendships with other women belies the fact that they felt powerless to change anything for the better, at least for more than five minutes.
My fantasy is that it would be great for a lot of men of my generation (now 70) to be tied down with their mouths taped and their eyes propped open with toothpicks, if need be, and forced to watch this movie about forty times! Since that’s not going to happen, all I can do is recommend that the peers of my generation at least consider watching it. It can only do us good!”


“If ever a woman was born to play a part, it was Fred Dowie as the abused mother in this film. Her face just screams “hit me – knock me about”. She has the careworn downtrodden look, while keeping her shameful secret to herself, that I have witnessed many times. There were so many little touches in this film that made it so real for me. The claustrophobic home, the BBC light programme playing on the radio: Billy Cotton Band Show, Beyond our Ken, Jean Metcalfe with Family Favorites all brought a touch of nostalgia. I noticed many things I had completely forgotten – like when the mother was cleaning the upstairs sash window by sitting on the window sill outside the window with the window pulled down to her lap.”