Veteran director Terence Davies narrates his new film, which ties in with Liverpool's year as Capital of Culture, in breathless, comforting undertones, like a much loved grandfather who's leaning over you to confidentially tell a bedtime story. While tinged with regret, in many ways Of Time and the City is very humorous.
The highly personal film, documenting Davies' return to Liverpool, his home town, starts by reciting part of Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and recalling Alfred Edward Housman's nostalgic words 'happy highways where I went and cannot come again'. Davies goes on to reference James Joyce, Friedrich Engels and Carl Jung, but never strays away from the ordinary people of Liverpool, for example looking into the lives of women doing laundry. He often focuses on the very young and very old, as those who stand for Liverpool as it was and how it will be in the future.
Twenty years ago, Terence Davies made a bittersweet, autobiographical film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, that was set almost entirely in the redbrick house he grew up in in the 1940s and early 1950s. Of Time and the City is similarly autobiographical, but places Davies' formative years, complete with burgeoning homosexuality and atheism, in a wider context: a Liverpool that was coping with poverty and rationing, and knew the value of 'happiness on a budget', an England that was giving street parties celebrating the lavish coronation of a new Queen and 'fossil monarchy' while the rest of the time it went without, and a world that was heading into the Korean war.
The film, which is set mainly to clips of classical music - from Liszt and Mahler to John Tavener - also serves as a tribute to the golden age of cinema and Hollywood stars, and Davies' love of classical music.
Of Time and the City is a poignant and emotional elegy to a lost Liverpool, one those places that we 'hate to love and love to hate', taking place almost entirely in a smoky black and white. Davies laments 'Where are you, the Liverpool I knew and loved? Where have you gone without me?'. Twenty first century Liverpool is so different that he's an 'alien in my own land.' As the Empire was on the decline, so was the Liverpool of old. Glimpses into house proud women cooking and scrubbing their front steps give way to images of demolition and vandalism.
The Liverpool in Of Time and Only City seems like a faraway land of cobblestones, trams, horses and carts and hire purchase, although in reality what we're seeing took place in the not so distant past. It comes across as a strangely old-fashioned place. Davies juxtaposes an idyllic scene of light rippling on a duckpond with a reminder that homosexuality was illegal until the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas the film jolts into early, ultra-vivid colour footage for the wedding of 'Betty and Phil' and the opening of the Catholic Cathedral (the building of which cuts through the film), the everyday life of most Liverpudlians remained starkly black and white.
Of Time and the City is remarkably coherent for a non-narrative film that is collaged from archive footage, and sweeps from everyday scenes of the docks and crowds watching Liverpool football club to swooping shots of the skyline. It's like we're watching a silent film – the music that accompanies the clips, from choral chanting to Ewan MacColl's 'Dirty Old Town', makes us feel as if we're cut off and peering in on history, outsiders trespassing on tableaux in someone's memory.
The 'paradise' of tower blocks and new towns that were created after the war looks just as remote and detached as the leftover Victorian slum housing that was knocked down to make way for it. Davies uses footage panning over fearsome municipal architecture that shows the 'British genius for creating the dismal'. Whereas before, the crammed streets of terraced houses were alive with children playing in the streets and a sense of community, afterwards the overall impression is of desertion and emptiness, the new city skyline looking like an architect's model or toy town rather than an inhabited urban centre.
I'm not from Liverpool, and I've only been there twice, but I felt strangely moved by the film, which ends up amidst the bars and shops of modern Liverpool. For all its problems, we're left feeling in awe of Liverpool, in all its glamour and majesty, as the camera soars over the Liver Building for the last time.