Movie Review of 'Of Time and the City'

Terence Davies combines present-day video images with archival footage to evoke the hardscrabble English city of his youth.
Terence Davies combines present-day video images with archival footage to evoke the hardscrabble English city of his youth. (By Bernard Fallon -- Strand Releasing)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

Do words like "tone poem" and "meditation," especially used in close proximity to the word "film," make your peepers sleepy? If so, you'll likely want to give "Of Time and the City" a miss. But you'll miss an experience that somehow manages to be engrossing, moving, amusing -- and poetic, and meditative -- all at once.

Terence Davies's memoir of growing up in postwar Liverpool, England, being shown Saturday at the National Gallery of Art as part of the Environmental Film Festival, checks nearly every box of the "tone poem" genre. (Davies, an actor and director, is best known for such similarly personal films as "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives.") In what he calls "a love song and a eulogy" to Liverpool, Davies evokes the city of his youth by way of a densely layered visual and aural collage, combining present-day video images with archival footage, telling his own story -- recognizing his homosexuality, leaving the Catholic Church -- while quoting liberally from such writers as Percy Bysshe Shelley, T.S. Eliot and A.E. Housman. The result is an impressionistic, deeply personal but also universal document of personal growth and civic despair, propelled by a soundtrack that is just as eclectic as the film's visual elements, as likely to borrow from Franz Liszt as from the Swinging Blue Jeans. (And just wait till you hear what Davies has to say about the Beatles. Cheeky!)

Davies piles it on so thick that you'd think "Of Time and the City" would collapse under its own ambition and aesthetic weight. Instead, it soars as an example of the cinematic essay at its finest. For one thing, Davies, best known as a director, is also an actor -- with an exceptionally expressive voice. His narration, in which he seamlessly combines his own memories with unattributed snippets from other writers, gives "Of Time and the City" both the stentorian basso profundo of unimpeachable authority and the arch humor of Noël Coward at his most biting. Nowhere is Davies more acidly funny than when he comments on the wedding and coronation of Queen Elizabeth, a spectacle he witheringly dubs "The Betty Windsor Show." And nowhere is he more seething than when he documents the poverty into which Liverpool ultimately descended in the 1950s and 1960s, expressed in an exquisitely infuriating sequence in which images of urban squalor are set to Peggy Lee's haunting rendition of "The Folks Who Live on the Hill."

It's an unforgettable scene, suffused with grief and rage, and just one example of Davies's consummate skill at weaving sound and image together to form an indelible and deeply meaningful impression of a time and place. (Even the anachronisms work, such as when he sets footage of the Korean War to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother.") "Of Time and the City" is one of those movies that start out as one thing (in this case an arty, self-conscious "exercise") and become something else entirely (in this case, an entrancing, emotional journey to one's own buried past). It's the kind of film that gives words like "tone poem" and "meditation" a very good name.

Of Time and the City (72 minutes) will be shown Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art's East Building Auditorium, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Free admission.

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