"Distant Voices/Still Lives" is a British art film about family abuse, which tells its story in a slow-moving, low-key manner, exploring not only the abuse suffered by the wife and children in the working-class Liverpool family observed here but also the far-reaching effects it has on their lives long after the abusive father has passed on.
This is a far cry from the TV movies-of-the-week that hysterically scream about subjects torn from newspaper headlines. Writer-director Terence Davies' quiet, personal look at a shameful subject, taken from his own family experiences, is shaped very much like a memory, as if one is sifting through a photograph album.In fact, the film begins with characters posing, as if sitting for pictures, and the movie itself is essentially broken into two short stories, the first titled "Distant Voices," the second "Still Lives."
The first half focuses mainly on the mother and her three children's personal sufferings at the hands of the father, who beats his wife so severely she's covered with bruises, which we observe while she returns to the solitude of household drudgery. And he also attacks his teenage daughter as she scrubs the basement floor. During these outbursts of violence, however, Davies pulls his camera away and shows nothing graphic, the effect being far more devastating than if he had shown the damage as it was being done (something American filmmakers could learn from).
The second half is more a concentration on the adult lives of the three children and how their childhood traumas have shaped their lives. The cycle of violence has apparently halted, but the psychological damage, mostly below the surface, seems irreparable.
Davies' technique involves shifts in time that jump back and forth, yet never seem confusing. The impact is great, however, when we see the father looking in on his young children as they sleep on a Christmas Eve, then for no apparent reason laying into one of those same children when she is in her teens.
There are no reasons or explanations offered for the father's behavior; Davies is more interested in effect than cause. But his straightforward approach and his unusual use of music - a bevy of old tunes are sung by most cast members at one time or another as a means of cheering themselves up in what is a dreadfully dreary world - makes the film quite involving.
Still, "Distant Voices/Still Lives" is a somewhat taxing film, slow and grim and tiring, despite its scant 85-minute length. But there is no question that it stays vividly in memory and is the kind of movie that sparks thoughtful conversation.
It is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity, though there is not a lot of either.