Brit helmer Terence Davies returns to filmmaking with "Of Time and the City," a highly personal film essay about his hometown, Liverpool.

After a regrettable eight-year absence from filmmaking, Brit helmer Terence Davies returns with “Of Time and the City,” a highly personal film essay about his hometown, Liverpool. A collage of archive material and original footage is fused with distinctive musical choices and a rhapsodic voiceover by Davies himself that cogitates on themes familiar from the helmer’s work. Result is by turns moving, droll and charming, and niftily assembled, but not necessarily that profound. Outside Blighty, distribs may feel not quite enough time is spent in the city itself (pic runs 77 minutes) to justify theatrical runs, confining pic to fest and tube play.

Pic’s structure is based neither on strictly chronological nor thematic criteria; rather, free association is the order of the day here, as images, music and voiceover narration work together to blend the macro and the microcosmic perspectives, laying personal memories side by side with, literally, a bird’s eye view on the city. A same, associative principle that governed Davies’ earlier feature work (“The Terence Davies Trilogy,” “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”), in which events seldom happen in order and instead seem to tumble out of a narrator’s brimming mind, is at play here. Parallels could be invoked with other essayist-filmmakers, such as Patrick Keiller (whose “London” this picture recalls in its intellectual scope), Humphrey Jennings (“Listen to Britain”) and Derek Jarman.

Take, for instance, the opening sequence, wherein shots of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery in all its neo-classical, colonnaded splendor segue into images shot inside a Catholic church, while the voiceover contemplates returning to the past, quoting A.E. Housman’s lines about a “land of lost content.” Next, archive footage from the earliest days of cinema shows trains moving through lost streets as Davies intones Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” another elegy for a lost civilization. Much of the voiceover’s poetry, incidentally, is not attributed and simply blends in with Davies’ own ideas. (Perhaps viewing the film could form the foundation for a drinking game among literary scholars, prompting participants to take a swig every time they spot a quotation in the mix.)

In fact, “mix” is just the word for Davies’ project: He layers sounds — snatches of archive recordings and music, for example — on top of each other, reminiscent of the way hip-hop producers and DJs mash up songs and samples. (Davies would probably hate this comparison, given his confession here to disliking pop music that came after the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.)

Other key sequences, which will seem comfortingly familiar to Davies fans, include hymns to the power of Hollywood cinema, the church that replaced the Church in helmer’s heart, archive footage of working-class people performing quotidian rituals (shots of women washing windows evoke a crucial sequence in “Distant Voices, Still Lives”), and spectral voices from the past, variously snatches of radio programs like the camp 1960s radio show “Round the Horne,” or of an anonymous woman recalling how she was made an orphan by the death of her mother and sailor father.

Weaving in and out, Davies sketches in bits of his own autobiography and personal opinion. A memory of the annual exotic pomegranate he got in his Christmas stocking each year as a child holds the same weight as a deliciously mocking description of Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding, described as the “The Betty Windsor Show.” Irony is much to the fore, with images and sound abrading off one another, like when Peggy Lee’s version of “The Folk Who Live on the Hill” backs a montage showing how the squalid Victorian terraces of the poor gave way to the squalid, 60s-built brutalist tower blocks of the poor.

The cumulative effect is very entrancing as it unspools, but once the lights go up some viewers may feel a little short-changed. For all the sensuousness of the experience, Davies doesn’t really have that much to say specifically about the city of Liverpool itself, particularly in its present state as it undergoes, like many of Blighty’s provincial metropolises, a profound shift from industrial to service-sector economics. The emphasis on the working-class culture of the past teeters at times on the banal. It’s to the city’s credit that its funding bodies and those of the region put money into the pic, despite these lacunae.

All the same, praise is due for pic’s polished sheen, from the standout musical choices, to the oneiric editing, to the helmer’s rich, narrating baritone itself. The archive research, credited to Mike McKibben and Angela Byrne is worth the price of admission alone.

Of Time and the City

U.K.

Production

A Northwest Vision and Media & Digital Departures presentation in association with the Liverpool Culture Co., BBC Films of a Hurricane Films Production. (International sales: Hurricane Films, Liverpool.) Produced by Sol Papadopoulos, Roy Boulter. Executive producers, Christopher Moll, Lisa Marie Russo. Directed, written by Terence Davies.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Tim Pollard; editor, Liza Ryan-Carter; music, Ian Neil; sound (Dolby Digital), David Coyle, Steven Guy. Reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 19, 2008. Running time: 77 MINS.

With

Terence Davies.

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