Terence Davies is one of Britain’s greatest and most overlooked directors; ostensibly he fits into Britain’s long tradition of social-realist cinema, a cinema about the working-class, about the problems and issues that the great many millions who live on Britain’s long-forgotten council estates have lived through. However beneath that surface, Davies has always been a film-maker unafraid to be brave and experimental. His best films are never less than intensely personal and brutally honest. It is this closeness of his films to his own heart that allows them to shine and break through the murky clouds of the duller forms of kitchen-sink realism. With a meagre 7 feature films in a career spanning more than 30 years, he has certainly always taken his time, but when those gaps allow him to produce work as intense and heart-breaking as the masterpiece that is Distant Voices Still Lives, it is hard to begrudge him.
Of Time and the City represents a break from Davies’ other films, this being an documentary/essay film/love-letter to Liverpool, the city where Terence Davies has spent most of his life. First off, this isn’t particularly a documentary which will tell you much about the history of Liverpool; rather it is more concerned with Davies’ recollections and memories and upbringing within the city. Quite appropriately, near the start of the film he claims that “you hate the place you love, you love the place you hate”, and nary has a truer sentence been spoken about the place our collective hometowns hold in our hearts.
The concerns of this film follow the concerns of other Davies’ films. Catholicism, homosexuality, art all feature heavily, as they always do. He talks of his Catholic upbringing and his first homosexual urges, his first visits to the cinema, and the epiphany he had when he watched Victim, the 1961 thriller starring Dirk Bogarde fighting against homophobic blackmail. Released in a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, Victim has since become a touchstone for gay cinema and has even been credited with helping to legalise homosexuality in the UK. One can only imagine the effect such a film had on the teenage Terence Davies, and the director simply leaves us with one sentence’s worth of his impression of the film; we need no more.
Of Time and the City criss-crosses Davies’ gloriously throaty thespian narration with archival footage of Liverpool’s growth throughout post-war Britain, as it rebuilds after World War II, then bursting into colour in the 60s, followed by the construction of brutalist high rises, futuristic then, oft-derided today, something Davies attributes to “the British propensity for creating the dismal”. Davies pours some rather funny scorn on keynote British cultural moments such as the Queen’s coronation and the arrival of the Beatles, and although his voice occasionally sounds aged and gasping for breath, it is a consistently funny and enjoyable presence in Of Time and the City, guiding us through the director’s catalogue of memories and quotations.
A minor film it may be, running at only 75 minutes, but Of Time and the City is a delightfully engaging and quietly funny trip into Davies’ world and Liverpool. It may come off as self-indulgent to some, but as far as I’m concerned, I am perfectly happy to listen to any figure half as intelligent, eloquent and storied as Terence Davies for just as long, if not longer.