Nostalgia in cinema is tricky thing. It’s a weight that, in the wrong hands, can drown a film in unbridled sentimentalism and soft-focus lenses that frame childhood as a paradise lost. But in the right hands, nostalgia can imbue a film with bittersweet, heartfelt emotions normally tucked safely away in the cockles of the heart. It can even go beyond emotion to become a force in its own right, a form of expression rather than the expression itself. No director seems to understand this more completely than Terence Davies. Granted, I’ve only seen three of the great British director’s films, but Distant Voices, Still Lives -- possibly the most powerful, if not greatest, musical ever filmed -- and The Long Day Closes both carry such a potent sense of time and place, filtering childhood memories through a brutal realism that is leavened by hopeful escapism.
With his first film in over eight years, Davies returns not to a cinema of portraiture, but with a documentary of mostly found footage upon which he muses over the difficulty of growing up gay and Catholic in Liverpool. The past always looms large in his films, but as depressing as the circumstances surrounding his lower-class characters were before, there was also always something hopeful about them -- the communal use of song in Distant Voices and cinema itself in The Long Day Closes -- that served as a means of transcending suffering, if only through the momentary escapism of pop culture. Davies' unique style included having actors look into and address the camera, a technique that drew the viewer into his subjective recollections, to intimate, achingly personal effect.
Unfortunately, in Of Time and the City, this magic mostly disappears. It’s certainly not a bad film, but Davies' voiceover too often verges on pompousness, and his anger toward the dominant social institutions, particularly the church and the royal family, is far more prominent than the joy of his supposedly fond remembrances of popular TV shows and his don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it mention of The Beatles. It's common for a director’s tone to shift toward the bleak as he ages. At age 63, Davies is entitled to his crankiness, but in this film, his curmudgeonly attitude becomes tiresome.
If I seem overly harsh towards a film that I'm essentially recommending, it’s only because I expect more from the director. Compared with many documentaries, Of Time and the City is successful, achieving a striking balance between the personal and the universal. While neither formally brilliant nor as challenging as his previous films, Davies' exploration of the ways in which environment and community shape us, in our formative years and beyond, remains unsurpassed. Of Time and the City has its flaws, but though Davies sometimes loses his way of words, he rarely loses his way with images. This collection of archival (and some modern) footage creates a comprehensive portrait of a city over time. I only wish Davies could have found a more effective way of communicating his thoughts and feelings than through the forced poetics of the cumbersome voiceover.