Of Time and the City Review
Terence Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945. Leaving out two adaptations from novels (The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth), all his films to date have been autobiographical in inspiration, a chapter of his career that closed with The Long Day Closes in 1992. Now, in his first feature film in eight years, he returns to the city of his birth: Of Time and the City is a valentine to the northwestern port where he grew up.
Of Time and the City is a personal history, with emphasis on the personal. Other people would emphasise different things. Davies gives short shrift to the Beatles – his own tastes are for 50s popular music and show tunes, and classical music, and he was never a rock'n'roller – and omits other parts of Liverpool's history, such as the 1981 Toxteth riots, entirely. As with his dramatic features, Davies slips back and forth as if by a process of memory and free-association, touching on scenes and places that were meaningful to him. The great majority of the film is comprised of archive footage, most of it in black and white, with some new material shot in HD. Davies's use of music is very apposite: Peggy Lee's “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” accompanies a sequence about the advent of the high-rise housing block. Davies's narration is beautifully read and often very funny.
The film begins with well-known lines from A.E. Housman's “A Shropshire Lad”:
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
As Davies reads these lines, it's clear to him and us that nostalgia is a dead end: it may console but the past is the past and can only be recreated in memory. Davies may not like some of the changes that have overtaken his beloved city, but he recognises that changes have to happen. But even in the middle of urban blight and delapidation, there is the possibility of renewal. As Of Time and the City shows, you can regret what a loved one has become, but you do not lose that love.
Since The House of Mirth in 2000, Terence Davies has been unable to make a feature film until now, something of which the British film industry should be ashamed. The highest-profile casualty of that period was an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 Scottish classic novel Sunset Song. I'm glad to see him back, though for all its delights, Of Time and the City seems like a pendant to his earlier work. It's enough to keep us going until he makes his next feature.