Too often it’s assumed that there’s an arthouse cabal in British cinema obsessed solely with telling stories of the working classes from a distant perspective and with a drab realism – or, to borrow the moaners’ own word, ‘miserabilism’. Certainly, there are guilty culprits, but if any filmmaker blows such assumptions out of the water, it’s Terence Davies, whose ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ is arguably among the very greatest British films of the last 25 years – a judgement our poll seems to confirm. The doubly good news is that, after a hiatus of a decade, 65-year-old Davies is back behind the camera making feature films and is currently editing an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, his first film since 2000’s ‘House of Mirth’.
This fiercely literate and independent Liverpudlian spent the first 16 years of his career, with three shorts, and then two feature films, ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ and ‘The Long Day Closes’ (1992), finding different, personal and poetic ways of making sense of his recollections of his childhood in a post-war, working-class Liverpool home. ‘Distant Voices…’ is essentially a portrait of his parents and siblings around the time he was born – but with Davies himself removed from the frame. As such, its fractured, truthful evocation of life in 1940s and ’50s Liverpool is as much about memory as truth. We experience the stuff of life – the brutality of a patriarch (Pete Postlethwaite), a daughter’s wedding, sing-songs at the pub – but the flow of the film is more emotional than chronological, and Davies prefers resonant images and moments to straightforward storytelling. Its songs lift us, while its sadnesses bring us down. Mostly, though, it’s Davies’s love for cinema that is apparent in every single frame of this beautiful film.