Distant Voices, Still Lives [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (14th October 2018).
The Film

"Distant Voices, Stills Lives" (1988)

It's difficult to describe the plot , as there isn't much of a plot but more of a collection of memories of a family. It is presented in non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth from the 1940s and 1950s, as if one is flipping through a family photo album. The film opens with Eileen (played by Angela Walsh) readying for her wedding reception. Her sister Lorraine (played by Lorraine Ashbourne and brother Tony (played by Dean Williams) plus their mother (played by Freda Dowie) are at her side as she is ready to be married off. The father (played by Pete Postlethwaite) has passed away some time ago. Throughout the years as a family of five, the film shows a range of happenings throughout their lives. The laughs, the singing, the parties, the fun, but also war, violence, rage, blood, and tears.

Writer and director Terence Davies relied heavily on his own life for the story. The youngest child of ten who grew up in Liverpool, memories of his father was not of the best. He was abusive towards the mother and the children, almost never showing compassion or love for the family. Though his father died when Davies was six, the trauma of the battered family remained throughout the years and into adulthood. The father frequently beat the mother and children whether in childhood or in adulthood, had a tight grasp of the family unit as an overbearing monster. For the film, rather than having a family of ten children (which seven survived to adulthood), it was lowered to three children, combining aspects of his various brothers and sisters into the characters, as he felt having too many children could be overbearing to keep track of for a cinematic story.

Pete Postlethwaite's performance of the father was horrific yet human - a character that has some serious trauma and rage within himself, though the depth is never explained. Why did he become like this? Why doesn't the mother take the kids and leave? These are questions that are never explored and never answered, nor are they ever questioned. This was how life was like for the family. Father was violent both physically and emotionally while mother was powerless both physically and emotionally. As stated, the film is like a photo album. The numerous establishing shots are framed like old family photos with their compositions, people looking directly into the lens, as well as the choice of how the colors were in a slightly brownish hue like old photographs. It's as if the photos come to life with the actors, portraying the different events in their lives. Even if the violent aspects of the father come as the strongest portions of the film, there are numerous scenes of fun and laughter. The Chanel No. 5 scene, the farting at the beach scene, the marriages, the childbirths bringing a new generation, the numerous scenes of pub singing for examples are ones that give smiles on faces for both the characters and audiences. As for the singing, there are so many scenes of characters singing that the film could easily qualify as a musical, but just without the choreographed dancing and off camera orchestra. But as much as the characters have their fun, reality comes crashing down fairly quickly as scenes jump back and forth.

As the title suggests, the film is in two parts. "Distant Voices" is the first half of the family reminiscing about their mostly abusive youth and the second half "Still Lives" shows the effects of their trauma into adulthood through new marriages and new families. Shot two years apart with the same actors, the parts weave together seamlessly giving a larger sense of time and emotional depth, more than just a simple story of flashbacks to youth. Although one might expect such a story that jumps back and forth through time so much would have trouble with audiences following the story, the flow never feels too disrupted or out of place, as it relies on how people retain their memories and recall certain situations in a non-linear order for many occasions. It breaks tradition with cinematic narrative just as "Rashomon" or "Citizen Kane" did many years ago, as those filmed played with time and memories to their fullest by compelling audiences with the unusually structured narratives and for the audiences to piece the puzzle together. "Distant Voices, Still Lives" has no puzzle. It has no mystery, no climax, no denouement. It's one family's life and times that some may fully relate to, some with find harshly far fetched, and some to gasp in shock and awe. Davies has eve stated that some of the more violent and outrageous happenings that happened with his family could not be put into the film, only because he felt no one would believe they could have happened without seeming like an implausible movie. The autobiographical production is entirely on the side of believable - that these people were real, that the fear was unbearable, the fun times were wonderful, and the memories can never be forgotten or erased, for better or for worse.

The film premiered at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. It won a fair share of awards around the world including the London Film Critics' Circle Award for Film of the Year and Best Director, though it was not a particular hit theatrically in the UK or elsewhere. Critically lauded when released, the stature of the film has only grown over the years, with Time Out magazine calling it the third greatest British film ever made. For its 30th anniversary, "Distant Voices, Still Lives" was restored and remastered in 4K by the BFI, giving another life to the film.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The original 35mm negative was scanned in 4K by the BFI National Archive and restored at Pinewood Studios, with supervision by director Terence Davies. Originally the film went through a bleach bypass process for film prints to create the brownish hue with brightened whites. Original 35mm prints were referenced to recreate the bleach bypass process digitally for the restoration. The results are quite outstanding by having a very unique look overall. Whites are intentionally blown out, browns are brought forth deeper, and colors are mostly on a muted tone, making the film look like a collection of old photographs come to life. The restoration also removed cuts, scratches, and other defects in the image while still leaving a very healthy amount of grain in the process. It is a sharper and more detailed transfer in comparison to the 2007 BFI DVD release which was already quite good in the first place. Overall a very pleasing restoration from the BFI and an excellent transfer.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 stereo
The original English stereo track was mixed in Dolby Stereo for theatrical runs, and the stereo track has been remastered from original magnetic elements. With a film relying quite heavily on singing and background music of the time period, the stereo separation is very good while keeping dialogue of characters mostly towards the center. Scenes such as the bombing sound very full, and there are no issues of hisses or other audio defects in the track.

There are optional English HoH subtitles in a white font for the feature, which also captions the song lyrics.

Extras

Audio commentary by Terence Davies
In this audio commentary, Davies gives a lot of background information on the making of the film including the bleach bypass process, creating the visuals, some accidental shots that were incorporated, the casting, as well as talking about the differences and similarities to the actions on screen and his real childhood. Davies is a man of wit and charm, and there are many instances in the commentary that will make listeners laugh quite a bit, even with the harsh sequences on screen. This commentary was previously on the 2007 DVD edition.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Introduction by Mark Kermode (2:32)
In this 2016 featurette with critic Mark Kermode, he introduces the film and gives extremely high praise to Davies and how "Distant Voices, Still Lives" continues to grow in stature.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Q&A with Terence Davies (32:14)
In this 2018 on stage Q&A, critic Geoff Andrew moderates a session with Davies following the 30th anniversary restoration screening. They talk about how they view the film 30 years later, some of the more outrageously insane things that happened with his family couldn't be put into the film, the casting process, and much more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Interview with Terence Davies (20:22)
In this older interview, Geoff Andrews talks to Davies about the film as well as about his family, the time period, and the choices making something non-linear. This was previously on the 2007 DVD edition.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Interview with Miki van Zwanenberg (6:31)
The art director of the film discusses the visual look and designs made. This was previously on the 2007 DVD edition.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Images of Liverpool in Archve Film (with Play All) (61:43)
Presented are three films that feature Liverpool in various times.

"Homes for Workers" (1939) (10:46)
In this documentary film by the Liverpool Gas Company, they focus on the bad living conditions of certain areas of Liverpool and how they are creating change wit newly developed homes. Some interesting views of the slums being torn down to make way for new modern structures. There are some pops and crackle in the soundtrack, some scratches and specs in the image as well.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 1.0 with no subtitles

"Liverpool 1941" (1941) (39:51)
Shot by amateur documentarian Leonard Card, this is a collection of silent footage of Liverpool in wartime. Considering it is amateur shot film there are some defects throughout the frame, but it is entirely on the watchable side. There is accompanying music by Bogdan for this feature.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Worker and War-Front No. 3" (1942) (11:05)
In this Ministry of Information short, dockers unload supplies and food for Liverpool, and in addition there are some curious examples of Soviet cartoon propaganda against the Nazis and the British praise for them as allies.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English Dolby Digital 1.0 with no subtitles

Image Gallery (5:52)
A series of behind the scenes stills, production notes, production sketches, without music accompaniment.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:58)
The original trailer is presented here, with many praising quotes bookending. Colors are dark and the image is slightly blurry.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

2018 Theatrical Trailer (1:35)
A beautiful new trailer that truly shows how great the restored picture is when compared to the older trailer. It has been embedded below.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
A 28 page booklet is included, with essays, photos, credits, and more. The first essay is "Thirty Years of Distance - Looking Back on Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives" by critic Derek Malcolm, which discusses the film's themes, the connections to the director's life and how it fits with his filmogrpahy. "Designing Distant Voices" is by art director Miki van Zwanenberg, as she gives a view on the design process and overall look of the film. The 1988 Sight and Sound magazine review by Adam Baker is reprinted, followed by "The Art of Memory" by Adrian Danks, associate dean of media at RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia). A biography of Davies is printed, finally with credits for the film, extras, and technical information.


The Blu-ray collects all the extras from the BFI 2007 DVD edition while adding a wealth of new extras to the Blu-ray. This UK BFI release marks the debut of the film on Blu-ray, though note for America, Arrow Acedemy's Blu-ray edition will be released the following day from the UK release, with the same specs and extras, with the only differences being the region code, the booklet contents, and the artwork.


Overall

"Distant Voices, Still Lives" is a haunting, traumatizing, yet uplifting masterwork of memories come to life. The BFI's 30th anniversary 4K restoration has been transferred well onto their Blu-ray edition, with excellent picture and audio as well as lengthy supplements making the release highly recommeneded.


A personal note
For many who watch the work of Terence Davies, it leaves a haunting feeling that lingers on for much longer that the runtime of each production, and for myself it was no different though the circumstances were much more dramatic than the norm. Back in 2011, I was one day sitting at home on a Friday afternoon watching "Despicable Me" on Blu-ray. While watching the film on full volume, it felt like the room was slightly shaking, and I immediately placed it as a great effect with the surround sound but I was mistaken. the room was actually rocking slowly back and forth. The room then shook violently from side to side, knocking over DVD and Blu-ray shelves, and nearly knocking down the television. After things settled down after a few minutes, I stepped outside where other neighbors were also standing around, looking shocked. A moment later, a mailman came by, looked at me and said "Mr. Ryan? A package for you", and drove off like nothing happened. Did he not notice? Was he just finishing his job as usual delivering packages? Opening the package, it was my order for "The Terence Davies Collection" on DVD from the BFI. While I was in shock with my place being a mess and not knowing what was going on, I would always recall receiving the set of Davies' work that day, which was March 11th 2011, the day of the Tohoku earthquake which caused more than 16,000 deaths, devastated business and transport, and limited water and electricity for millions. Of course the rest of the day I kept the television on the news for safety purposes rather finishing "Despicable Me" or watching the newly received DVD set. I hadn't watched the films before and only knew them from reputation. But looking at the titles of the main features, they were haunting to read. "Distant Voices, Still Lives" - the displaced people whose lives were placed on hold, "The Long Day Closes" - the entire day where millions were afraid to do anything for the day that felt would never end, "Of Time and the City" - the feeling that the city of Tokyo, as well as the rest of the country that was always moving was suddenly stopped in time. It took some time to finally watch the films in the set, and as brilliant as they were and how there were no direct connections to natural disaster in the productions, the receiving of the set as well as the titles always remind me of that day.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A- Extras: A- Overall: A

 


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