18 July 2008 | Anscombe
Terence Davies's films always have wonderful openings. And his new film, "Of Time and the City", is no exception. The screen is dark, but we hear Liszt, and before we know it a cinema screen is rising before our eyes. As its orange curtains open, the colour fades, and we enter a black-and-white world of memory. We see Liverpool in the 19th century in all its imperial grandeur, as "Music for the Royal Fireworks" plays on the soundtrack. But that memory only drags us back to the present, to the contemporary remains of this grandeur, the majestic St. George's Hall, around which Davies's always fluid camera executes a series of breathtaking tracking shots. It is a truly magical opening, a reminder that, when it comes to creating transcendent cinema, Terence Davies is without peer.
The rest of the film could be seen as a kind of critique of these grandiose fantasies, because the film is not about the glory and wealth of Liverpool's architecture, but about its people. One of those people is Davies himself. But he is only one player in a cast of thousands: housewives, children, factory workers, happy holidaymakers, partying teenagers, and even the monarchy (the subject of a wonderfully vitriolic, and utterly deserved, attack at one point in the film). This is a film with real respect for the people of Liverpool, past and present not only the workers of the 1950s, but also the young people of today. That is one reason why the film is so memorable, and so moving.
Throughout all of Davies's films we have the sense of a director doing something new with cinema: capturing the logic of memory; dramatising and allowing us to experience long-forgotten emotions; and creating a new cinematic style, at once formally rigorous and deeply humane. And like almost all of his films, "Of Time and the City" is both personal and universal. But even though it is composed mainly of archive footage of Liverpool, it would be a mistake to think of it as a documentary about the city, not least because doing so runs the risk of leading know-nothings to complain about the fact that it says nothing about the Toxteth Riots, or Liverpool football club, and so on. The film is personal, and therefore partial. But it is never solipsistic. It resonated with me deeply, even though I was not alive in the 1950s (and have never even been to Liverpool).
It is a film of many memorable moments: the destruction of terraces and the building of high rises, to the sound of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill"; footage of the forgotten generation of men who fought in the Korean War (including Davies's own brother); the extraordinary tracking shot across what seems like the whole sweep of Liverpool, from the shops to the docks. And on one level it is a simple, even straightforward film. But on another level it is very complex, full of fascinating and unexpected transitions and juxtapositions, and demands multiple viewings.
Quite simply, "Of Time and the City" is a masterpiece, which demonstrates as if it needs demonstrating! that Terence Davies is one of the greatest film-makers alive today. As you can tell, I loved it!