Of Time and the City (2008), the first film from acclaimed English filmmaker Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) since 2000, is a documentary that could be described as an essay film, memory piece, or tone film, and which Davies describes as "a love song and a eulogy." All of these descriptors are apt. The film is Davies' personal narrative recalling the Liverpool of his youth. He spent the first quarter century of his life there, and it's this period from 1945-1970 that preoccupies his attention here and throughout much of his work as a filmmaker.
Of Time and the City is a bittersweet film of nostalgic reverie for a densely-populated working-class city with streets filled with children and the elderly, and factories and shipyards humming with the bustle of commerce. With Saturdays for pubs, sports and spectacles, and Sundays for God, the post-war proletariat got by as it could in a city of dismal housing stock.
In a lyrical style approximating stream of consciousness, Davies' narrative unspools accompanied by archival footage and an eclectic soundtrack. Davies quotes liberally from the likes of A.E. Housman, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and T.S. Elliot, while paying homage to the great English documentarian Humphrey Jennings (Listen to Britain) in his composition.
Though much of Davies' prior work has been based on his personal history--the product of a large working-class family, a homosexual and lapsed Catholic--this is his first documentary. In addition to fondly recalling the proletarian pleasures of a time now bygone, Davies also heaps scorn on an extravagant monarchy, urban blight, bleak public architecture, and years of Sundays "wasted in useless prayer."
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks pleasing despite the varying quality of the black & white and early color archival material. What blemishes and defects there are do not appear attributable to the DVD transfer.
The mix of Terence Davies's narration and soundtrack is spare, bass-heavy and leans toward monaural, but the 2.0 DD audio on the main feature probably sounds just as it did in theaters. However, audio on the extras is problematic, especially on the interview with Davies which sounds like it took place inside an empty container ship.
No subtitle options are provided on this release.
Extras include 24 minutes of interviews with Terence Davies, producers Sal Papdopoulos and Roy Boulter, executive producer Lisa Marie Russo, and editor Liza Ryan-Carter, three behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling 12 minutes, and trailers for this film and four other Strand Releasing DVD releases.
Essay films are a niche within a niche, appealing to a rather small audience. That said, for those viewers willing to engage with a film of this kind, Of Time and the City is a fascinating, poignantly lyrical and bittersweet autobiographical reverie for a bygone time and place by one of the best English filmmakers working today.