One of the major British filmmakers of his generation, Terence Davies revisits his youth to decidedly mixed effect in Of Time and the City—a personal documentary evocation of post–World War II Liverpool. Davies, 64, is only a few years younger than the Beatles and grew up in a similar, working-class Liverpudlian milieu, but, suffering acute Catholic guilt for his sexual orientation, recalls a wholly different history.
Narrating a choice assemblage of archival, amateur, and newsreel footage, the filmmaker adopts a mock plummy tone: Late in the movie, he calls Of Time and the City his “chanson d’amour for all that has passed.” Satirizing Liverpool’s grandiose aspirations, Davies dwells on his hometown’s pretentious official architecture, including a once-imposing cathedral transformed into a fashionable restaurant. (The good old days were less vulgar—except when they weren’t.)
After a number of movies based on family stories, Davies announced that his 1992 masterpiece The Long Day Closes would be his final autobiographical film; not having made a movie since his terrific adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000), he hardly seems thrilled to be revisiting his hometown. Of Time and the City communicates acute, if not bitter, ambivalence. Davies can’t decide whether he wants to remember or forget the childhood ecstasy of attending Hollywood musicals or the “dark desire” of his adolescent fascination with professional wrestlers.
The images of kids playing in brick lanes or family excursions to the seaside potently adumbrate 1950s Britain, and Of Time and the City has, in general, been extremely well-received by British critics. Still, the filmmaker’s incantatory, pompous delivery seems designed to create maximum distance from the material. Davies burdens his already overwrought chanson d’amour with not-always-credited bon mots from Yeats, Joyce, Engels, Chekhov, Jung, and Eliot. He has nothing but scorn for a royal coronation (“the start of the Betty Windsor Show”), and the ascension of the homeboy Fab Four is greeted with a sarcastic “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah.” Davies sonorously laments the decline of the “witty lyric and the well-crafted love song,” and notes that he rejected pop for classical music—except when he doesn’t.
Shots of miserable, misbegotten housing estates are accompanied by Peggy Lee’s rendition of the saccharine “The Folks Who Live on the Hill.” Korean War footage is set to “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” Davies concludes another tour of failed urban development by citing “the British genius for making ‘The Dismal’ “—a national characteristic he immediately demonstrates with a lugubriously hummed version of Brahms’s Lullaby. No nostalgic “Penny Lane” or “Strawberry Fields” here. The filmmaker prefers an angrier form of sentimentality.