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Of Time and the City (2008)

Courtesy of Hurricane City Ltd

Main image of Of Time and the City (2008)
Digibeta, black and white/colour, 77 mins
Directed byTerence Davies
Production CompanyHurricane Films
Produced bySolon Papadopoulos
 Roy Boulter
Written byTerence Davies
PhotographyTim Pollard
Music SupervisorIan Neil

Poetic reflections about the culture and people of Liverpool, intertwined with autobiographical reminiscences by filmmaker Terence Davies.

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Terence Davies' Of Time and the City was commissioned as a by-product of the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008. Made on a tiny budget, its visual content mostly comprising archive footage of the city, it was hailed as the long overdue return of one of Britain's greatest directors, who had spent much of the decade since The House of Mirth (2000) failing to find funding for feature-film projects.

The film is ostensibly about the city of Liverpool, but it's not a documentary. There's surprisingly little historical and geographical specificity, and this is filtered through Davies' own pithily-expressed prejudices: he has little time for municipal architecture, the Beatles, or sentimental attachments to royalty or religion. If at first glance it seems to be pandering to a familiar form of nostalgic 'heritage' cinema, there's usually a kick to Davies' reminiscences: an outwardly charming vignette of Christmas and family outings usually leads to equally vivid memories of emotional turmoil. Unable to square the dictates of the Catholic faith with his growing awareness of his sexuality, he finds escape in the cinema and the wrestling ring, the latter a reliable provider of illicit thrills in the years before homosexuality was decriminalised.

Autobiographical elements are fused with evocative, inescapably haunting images (still and moving) of Liverpool as it changed and mutated over Davies' life. He spent his childhood in a largely working-class port city, but now its identity is much harder to pin down. Its slums are long gone (though the tower blocks that replaced them were scarcely an improvement), its churches converted into chic wine bars. A typically eclectic soundtrack uses The Spinners, The Hollies, Peggy Lee and John Tavener to build unexpected connections between images originally shot decades apart for very different reasons.

Davies' commentary is liberally strewn with literary quotations, the most significant being the numerous allusions to T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets'. Like the film, Eliot's poems are derived from a defined geographical location, from which they spiral into more abstract philosophical speculations on the nature of time and memory and the impossibility of returning home when "home" means so much more than just a physical space. And it's this realisation that makes Of Time and the City a far more complex and challenging film than its backers can possibly have envisaged. Like Humphrey Jennings' not dissimilar portraits of WWII-era Britain, Davies' film reaches far beyond the intended propaganda.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Liverpool at leisure (3:40)
2. Love and cellophane (2:01)
3. Betty and Phil (3:27)
4. Waters of Babylon (2:37)
Production stills
Listen to Britain (1942)
Davies, Terence (1945-)