Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City might be his finest work; the epitome of his style and method, and also his most accessible and relevant, probably so for years to come.
Just as with his story based films this tribute to Liverpool -the director’s beloved home city- is told through fractured, disparate memories. Normally when someone tells the story of a place, they start at the beginning and then relay chronological facts and, bizarrely, despite all the information, the essence of the place becomes more distant. Davies’ free-wheeling approach threatens to ignore the facts and figures a geography student would need, yet his intensely personal approach brings the place to life and relates it to every one of us. We see the history of the city and the way it has fed into everyday life, yet more, we get a feel for the place, warts and all.
Terence narrates the film himself and he does so with entertaining and sometimes aggressive passion. He is an excellent speaker anyway. He avoids the obvious and reduces his voice-over to minimum, employing quotations and sound-bites. For example, Liverpool’s most famous export is arguably The Beatles and 1960s ‘Merseybeat’ pop, which he summarises in sarcastic disdain with the simple phrase (from She Loves You), “yeah, yeah, YEAH”. I don’t think he likes them! Certainly he resents the way Liverpool has been somewhat reduced by its association with the band. You may disagree with this and other points he makes; I did, but I enjoyed doing so, because everything he says is intelligent and colourful. It all adds to building an accurate vision of a proud city and you may find yourself wishing someone could unlock your own hometown in a similar way.
Davies narration is occasionally in contrast to the film (a mix of archive and new footage). For instance he films a beautiful church with respect, while speaking of his difficult Catholic upbringing. Throughout there’s a varied and stunning soundtrack and the whole package works brilliantly, giving us a piece of work that runs through so many emotions that it is an exhilarating experience. While Liverpool is the focus, Of Time And The City creates a textured and humbling testament to British life. Perhaps I should be bold and just say “to life”, British or otherwise, because I dare say everyone will find something relevant here.