In order to create the desired atmosphere—drab, working class England of the 1940s and 1950s—Distant Voices, Still Lives is shot in a kind of muted color, with every day seemingly overcast.
It has the desired effect. Maybe too much. I found it slightly more dreary and depressing even than the mostly dreary and depressing content would warrant. Pretty much a downer from start to finish.
I don’t know that the style of this movie connects all that well with me either. It’s a series of vignettes, impressionistically rather than chronologically ordered, about a family and friends.
My understanding is it’s semi-autobiographical about the life of filmmaker Terence Davies. It’s a set of memories—the time Dad slapped me, my sister’s wedding day, the typical evening at the pub when we all used to sing, etc.—not put together as a coherent story, but presented like stanzas of a poem, where the connections are more subjective and thematic, and in the end hopefully you have a little better sense what these people’s lives were like.
I’m sure it would be much easier to get into this film if you lived during the time and place in question, where you’d have that positive sense of recognition and nostalgia, mixed with relief that your life is no longer like those bad old days. Not that that’s a necessary condition—if a film is well done, and if I’m in the right mood to be receptive to it, there are times I’m very drawn in by characters and situations that overlap very little with my life. But certainly it would be a big help.
And it’s absent here (for me). I never identified with these characters, never cared about them more than a little.
Almost every aspect of their lives seems very oppressive to me, even the aspects that probably aren’t intended to come across that way. It’s not so much a matter of poverty as social constraints or limited perspectives. The life choices available to them, the behavior they feel compelled to engage in due to their gender, age, and class and such, is like watching people confined their whole lives in a tiny box, only dimly aware that the sun is shining outside and that there is a whole world of other possibilities for them, or at least should be.
I felt that most about gender roles in the film, the way males feel they can only be strong, only be worthy of respect, only be true to their nature, insofar as they control the lives of their wife and kids, through violence if necessary.
This is illustrated especially, but not only, by the father in the main family depicted here. He is a tyrant over his family, yet it’s not clear he even particularly benefits by it. How is his life better from all the conflict, from having a meek and defeated wife, from having kids who will be defiant to varying degrees as they grow up, and possibly eventually estranged?
Nor is he even an unusually bad or unloving person. In an early scene he is shown looking in on his young children as they sleep, and he is all love and tenderness, letting his guard down a bit and showing that, because they’re asleep.
Think about how warped that is. Because of some sort of patriarchal values he’s internalized, he can’t show love for fear it will make him appear weak or soft. He must be cold and authoritarian, keep people in line with his temper and his willingness to administer beatings, only ever give people what they want grudgingly so they know who’s boss and that they owe him. (Need a little money to go to the dance? Well if you grovel just right, and you acknowledge that it’s all totally up to me, and you listen to me lecture and complain, then if I’m feeling generous maybe I’ll disgustedly toss what you need on the ground so you can crawl for it.)
So he’s not doing the things he’s doing because he as an individual is a monster, but because—at least this is what I take from it—quite normal people shaped by the kind of social forces prevalent at the time knew no other way to be.
Which in its way is more depressing than if it were all about his flaws, and we could just get mad at him for being an ogre.
Then there’s the newlywed character later, haughtily informing his bride that her whole life will be different now, that she’ll have only the contact with her friends that he chooses to allow, which won’t be much. That’s all over now, he lets her know, all that bonding with your girlfriends and sharing secrets and having a social life and being happy and such.
Again, is this even good for him? Is he better off if he deprives his wife—someone he supposedly loves—of an important source of friendship, joy, and love? Not that I can see. But he’s a man, and a man has to lay down the law, and a man has to see to it that his wife and kids realize everything now goes through him, and blah, blah, blah, no matter how miserable it makes not just them but him as well.
About the only things that give any of these characters much pleasure, other than some of the female friendships (when they’re allowed), is booze and singing. People frequently break into song in this movie.
But what’s interesting about that is how little the film feels like a musical. I think of musicals as hopelessly artificial and unrealistic, and tend to dislike them for that very reason. (“No, see, street gangs wouldn’t break into song and execute an elaborately choreographed dance number at this point of the story.”) Almost all musicals feel like Springtime for Hitler to me, just a complete disconnect between any even halfway serious subject matter and the mode of presentation.
But in this movie, people sing when they (apparently) would have sung in real life. At the pub it’s routine to have sing-a-longs. When girlfriends get together, one or more of them will sing part of a popular song as a way to entertain each other and have fun. At a wedding or family gathering, someone known to have a good singing voice will be asked to favor the group with a song, not as any kind of formal thing, but as a normal part of life.
So there’s maybe 50%-75% as much singing in this movie as in the typical musical, yet it completely lacks the artificiality of a musical. It’s just a movie about people who naturally sing when they’re relaxed and wanting to have a good time and connect with each other.
Anyway, on the whole insofar as I cared about these characters, I mostly just felt bad for them and wished people didn’t have to live like this. But I wasn’t all that much into the film, my mind wandered, and I didn’t keep strict track of who everyone was and how they all related to each other. I got the gist of what it was like to live in that time and place—which I think is the point—and mostly just found it depressing.
That doesn’t make it a bad movie. But I can’t say I enjoyed it.
I know you can say that it’s not a movie you’re supposed to “enjoy,” but I think there’s a sense in which you can indeed enjoy or have some positive feeling about watching a sad, infuriating, scary, or otherwise negative movie, but I mostly didn’t feel that here. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for Distant Voices, Still Lives.