England and the English have always baffled me. I find the country to be cold, miserable, and poorly run. And my general impression of the English, it has to be said, is of a repressed, judgmental and unhappy lot. My history may apparently be intertwined with theirs, but the commonalities end there. Terence Davies latest film demonstrates that my discomfort and sense of estrangement in England is not reserved for foreigners. In this colorful collage of found footage, edited together with documentary footage, and a poetic, elegaic voiceover, Davies shows us the Liverpool where he grew up, and the England that molded him. It’s a distant world that bears little resemblance to the England of today, at least, that’s his claim in the film. It’s a place and a culture full of contradictions, injustice, poverty and impoverishment. Davies underlies what to my eyes can only be described as the misery of England by spending a lot of time in churches, factories, the housing projects, and on the dismal streets. There are lots of images, both archival and contemporary, in churches while Davies in voiceover reminds us of the confusion and contradictions of the religion he was supposed to imbibe. Luckily for him and for us, even as a young boy, he was wise enough to reject it for the mysticism and heavenly appeal of the movies, or as he calls them, as they were in the 1940s and 50s, “the pictures.” Davies’ images of the high street, day trips to Brighton, homophobia, monarchic adoration and wartime rationing are veritable representations of what the English pride themselves on. And the poetic, yet dyseptic voiceover was appropriate to my experience of England: if you are not straight, white and Christian, parochial and speak with an incomprehensible accent, you will be reminded over and over again that you don’t belong.
But then Davies and I part ways. He was afterall, brought up in this world. And this is, afterall, an elegy to the lost world of his childhood. Despite being gay, a filmmaker, from a working class alcoholic family, he is nostalgic for the Liverpool and England that is now in the past. The redemption in his memory, albeit with irony and reservations, is where I stopped identifying with Of Time and the City.
I am a big fan of Terence Davies' films and have utmost respect and admiration for him as a filmmaker. His are among the handful of films that have the capacity to appeal to both my British students and myself. The haunting magnificence of Distant Voices, Still Lives is apparent to all in my classes. However, despite the critical praise bestowed on Of Time and the City, it was a film that didn’t gel with me. Nostalgia might be the terrain of the movies, but as someone who is not – to quote the phrase thrown at me time after time – “from around these parts” - longing and love for England just doesn’t win my vote.