It's been nine long years since British director Terence Davies made the superb Edith Wharton adaptation The House Of Mirth, and another eight since his last essay film, 1992's The Long Day Closes, though the word "essay" doesn't do justice to the particular magic of it or 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives. Davies' work could best be described as bittersweet (emphasis on the "bitter"), informed by the perspective of a pessimistic outcast, yet touched by a romantic sensibility that comes straight from the movies. When Liverpool city officials commissioned him to make a film about his native city to celebrate its designation as European Capital Of Culture 2008, they must have naïvely expected a love letter, but Davies isn't the sort of guy to send valentines. Instead, Of Time And The City is a caustic, witty, regretful elegy for a place so transformed that it's virtually unrecognizable.
As with Davies' earlier memoirs, Of Time And The City is a densely layered mix of original and archival footage, mellifluous voiceover, and a soundtrack choked with music ranging from classical to vintage to popular. Over 74 minutes, he offers a rich sense of Liverpool's architecture and history from the distinct perspective of the poor, miserable working-class blokes who inhabit it. His narration, which sings with poetry at times and withering humor at others, speaks frankly about his troubled past, and the pains and pleasures of growing up different. Born to a strict Catholic upbringing, he still struggles to come to terms with his thunderstruck realization, seeing Dirk Bogarde in Victim at age 15, that he wasn't like everybody else, and that being gay would doom him to the tortures of schoolboy guilt and an intense fear of God's wrath. At the same time, he aligns himself strongly with Liverpool's destitute working class; in the film's funniest sequence, he snorts at all the attention given Queen Elizabeth's coronation, saying, "The problem with being poor is, it takes up all of your time. The problem with being rich is that it takes up everybody else's." Though the sterile digital photography breaks the spell whenever the film comes up for air, Of Time And The City views Liverpool through a uniquely personal lens, and reveals how a place can both shape and scar.