Fans have been waiting over eight years for a new offering from Terence Davies, the cult arthouse director who’s built a sterling reputation on austere yet sensual chronicles of working-class British life. But Of Timeand the City, an essay film juxtaposing archival footage of Davies’ hometown of Liverpool with diverse soundtrack selections and his own wry musings, is an experiment in personal remembrance that suffers mightily without the filmmaker’s original visual correlatives. In Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day
Closes Davies captured 1940s and 50s Liverpool in classroom silences, barroom sing-alongs and domestic routine, with hypnotizing camerawork and associative editing opening up tableaux of sepia-toned tapestries contrapuntally complemented by popular songs of yesteryear; in Of Time the city is viewed from an obscuring distance fostered from both the melancholic but unelaborated anonymity of found footage and Davies’ arch drawl. (Many will likely go into raptures over the latter, but — acquired taste aside — his pinky-to-lip irreverence smacks of self-satisfaction.)
More problematic is the film’s relatively fast-paced montage, ill-suited to dreamy nostalgia as it loses the textures, moods and lives of Liverpool in an incessant, rhythmically dull blur. Instead of re-rendered autobiography Davies falls back on the archives, and by the time he launches into a third sequence on Liverpool’s slums (these set to obvious ironic accompaniments like Peggy Lee’s upwardly mobile “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”), he’s exhausted inspired possibilities for issues and memories — the clash between Roman Catholicism and homosexuality, the simple entertainments of stone scrubbers and factory workers, the ravages of time and memory as exemplified by quotes from Jung, Chekhov, and Joyce — better served by his earlier forms.