The working-class, mid-20th-century Liverpudlian characters who populate Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) sometimes glance in the direction of the camera, their self-conscious near-posing and the director's portrait-like framing evoking the flipping-through of an old photo album. This combination of intimacy and remove -- the startling emotional jolt of seeing a family in mourning stare toward you in silence, an image of the felled patriarch hanging on the wall behind them -- characterizes Davies' enthralling 30-year-old debut feature.
Davies' reminiscences, centered on one Catholic clan, unfold according to a peculiar emotional logic: The characters are more comfortable singing than speaking. ("Bye Bye Blackbird" diffuses a barroom argument.) Scenes aren't shaped with typical dramatic roundness, but rather pick up and cut off at surprise intervals. Even an encounter with stark interpersonal stakes -- a confrontation between army-age son Tony (Dean Williams) and abusive father Tommy (Pete Postlethwaite) -- is structured as a sort of de-escalation. Davies opens on an expression of mighty rage, Tony punching his fists through a window ("Fight me, you bastard!"), then transitions abruptly to a near-the-fireplace shot of Tony holding two beers in his bloodied hands, Tommy flatly but quietly refusing his boy's offer of a drink. Such disjunctive stops and starts recur across Davies' movie, as its look-back form -- all elegiacally drifting camera movements and belted-out bar songs -- endures as a grand cinematic anomaly.