Terence Davies latest film, The Deep Blue Sea, is an adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play of the same name. As I have contemplated Mr. Davies' film, both prior to and since attending a screening, I find myself thinking of yet another Terrence, America's great filmmaker of the same (if spelled slightly differently) first name. This, of course, the redoubtable Mr. Malick. Both filmmakers are visual poets, after a fashion. Both seem individualists, if not iconoclasts, uncompromising as to when and how they make films. Most significantly, whatever each man might have to say about the human condition, he does so with stories very much removed from the present day.
The settings for the films for which each man are best know are superficially quite different. The natural world has always figured prominently in Malick's films, from Badlands through The Tree of Life. Davies most often has us in one English room or another. And yet, with environments as different as American Great Plains and that of post-war Liverpool or London, each man seems very much concerned with matters of not just personal but national identity. How did we get here? How might we get back? Of course, Terence Malick got downright cosmic with his most recent film. The great ambition and disconnecting flaw of The Tree of Life is the drawing back from Waco, Texas of the 1950's to the very creation of the world.
As usual, Terence Davies works within a more limited scope of place and time. If there's a big bang in The Deep Blue Sea, it's World War II and The Blitz. The Deep Blue Sea begins with a dreamy tracking shot, sparks drifting up from the shell of a bombed home, sort of a reverse, illumined snow globe. The camera ultimately glides over to a boarding house in which more than one forlorn figure stands in a window. Finally, up to the top floor, where the peeling, white paint of a window frames the sad portrait that is Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz). There is a graceful fade from outdoors to the interior of the building, the perspective melting from a view of Hester through the window to a shot from behind her in bedsit she shares with her lover. More than once, poor Hester is seen with her back to the camera, facing the spectral light of a curtain-veiled window. As the tracking shot plays out, we hear her suicide note spoken in voice over.
It's London, about 1950. As the rubble of the bombed building indicates, the city has yet to fully recover from the war. Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), himself something of a ruin seductively issuing brilliant sparks, seems unlikely to recover from the war at all. Hester's great misfortune is to be hopelessly in love with Freddie, giving up a comfortable marriage to a devoted, older husband, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), an eminent barrister. Freddie survived the war without physical flaw, but is, by his own reckoning, "FUBAR." This appraisal he offers to Hester as a fight escalates in art gallery, after she first chides him for lacking the depth or intelligence to appreciate the cubist painting before which they stand. The shouting culminates in rare moment of levity, nearly hilarious relative to emotional gloom that prevails through much of The Deep Blue Sea. "Where are you going," asks an exasperated Hester as Freddie storms off. "TO THE IMPRESSIONISTS! he shouts.
The film's action, emotional if not circumstantial, occurs in flashback from the moment that Hester attempts suicide as well as in the aftermath of the act. Terence Davies has adapted Rattigan's play as well as directing this film version of The Deep Blue Sea. There are intervals when both Davies' writing and directing fail to overcome limitations of his source material. When Tom practically bursts in upon Hester and Sir William as they talk on a sidewalk late in the film, he seems to appear from upstage more than from down the street. The dialog and general tone, dour to begin with, drags painfully during some of the uneasy conversations. At its worst, The Deep Blue Sea gives one an experience akin to sipping castor oil from very fine stemware. This is the case in certain of the conversations between the doomed husband and wife, as well as the barbed exchanges between Hester and Sir William's mother (Barbara Jefford), perched like some formidable old bird of prey on one fine chair or another, always ready to draw blood.
At such times, as we see Hester struggling in her husband's world, the material tends gets the better of Ms. Weisz. It's as if her generally committed, emotionally rangy performance is put in a time machine and doesn't arrive completely intact. That same cannot be said for Simon Russell Beale as her pained husband, Sir William Collyer. He is consistently in command and often heartbreaking.
If some stretches of The Deep Blue fail to rise above filmed drama (albeit beautifully filmed drama), there is little doubt in other scenes that this is very much a cinematic experience and undoubtedly one authored by Terence Davies. There is that opening tracking shot, as well as a memorable rotary shot of Hester and Freddie in bed. As the lovers bodies and limbs intertwine, the camera circles above them. The vantage point seems not just an overhead glimpse but the detached view of the revolving Earth. The slow rotation ends with a typically graceful fade back to Hester laying on the floor in the midst of her suicide attempt.
The beauty of Mr. Davies film is often undeniable. As did his predecessor's from decades past, the director takes full advantage of the more romantic by-products cigarette smoking, most notably the smoke itself. Hester is propped on her sofa with an air so dolorous and weary that she seems in danger of sinking into the very leather. As she exhales, the camera follows the expanding, thinning cloud, focusing on the currents and eddies within. So mesmerizing is this lingering view of the swirling smoke that one expects a face to materialize out of it. On another occasion, though even less sanguine for Hester, she's seen in one of those classic British phone boxes. It's a striking composition: the deep, rich colors of the red booth and Hester's overcoat along with Weisz's black hair, offset by the fine china of her pale skin.
The phone booth scene, which seques dramatically to another contemplation of suicide for Hester, also reveals the limitation of Davies' impeccable control of sound and image. Hester is on the phone to Freddie. Their torturous relationship seems in its death throes. Hester wants just one last concession, but instead of the answer for which she is desperate, she gets that unmistakable buzz of a British phone no longer engaged. Freddie has simply hung up and Hester is devastated. Before either Weisz or her character have a chance to fully react, a stabbing violin is heard. An orchestra quickly follows in full dramatic gear. This the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. It's an apt accompaniment to Hester and her situation, stuck as she is between her own charming devil and the deep blue sea of loneliness. But the music has the effect of sweeping us to that conclusion.before we have a chance to arrive their with our own thoughts or emotion.
Hester is a woman who should arouse our sympathy. She's overcome with whatever combination of lust and love that she feels for Freddie, is brave enough to leave the comfort of her married life, defies the heavy social gravity meant to keep her in place and even attempts suicide (illegal at the time in England). This is not an uncommitted woman. The same can be said Rachel Weisz's performance as Hester. And yet, The Deep Blue Sea is much less affecting than it should be.
Davies has always used music to powerful effect in his English films (he also directed and adapted two stories from America's past, The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth). The features Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), along with the documentary Of Time and the City (2008) all concern themselves to varying degrees with the Liverpool of Davies' youth, the city in the 1940's and 50's. Much as those first two features might be drawn from personal reminiscence, each was full of transcendent moments. With Of Time and the City, Davies nostalgia began to find diminishing returns. The composition of the film, both visually and aurally, is impeccable as ever. And there is certainly pleasure to be had as Davies skewers the royal family ("Betty and Phil" he calls the reigning Queen and her prince) and that even more sacred institution, The Beatles. "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!" he derisively says as we see film of the group whose popularity displaced the more genteel music he loved, sending him to Mahler (among others) for consolation. As the notes of beloved songs accumulate, as do the images of dear things lost, it becomes all too clear there's no real social or cultural criticism at work, just a man who's aggrieved that the things he loved have been replaced. All of which threatens to render the poet just another grouchy old man.
The poet is present in The Deep Blue Sea, but rather too much so. There is a profusion of rich visuals, admirably realized, but the sort more likely retrieved from the vast storehouses of nostalgia than from the dusty vaults of history (if anyone can actually locate such a place). And there is music in abundance. Not simply the signifying Barber concerto, but pubs full of people in song. There is also the plaintive singing of the traditional "Molly Malone" by a man in the Aldwych tube station as bombs full on London during The Blitz. This while Hester, Sir William and a station full of people listen in relative silence, the only competing sounds the muffled impact of the explosions above and the odd bit of dirt falling from the arched roof of The Underground tunnel. The song is well chosen - the life and death of a passionate woman - and the scene well constructed. But much as songs were no doubt sung on wartime tube platforms and in crowded pubs, Davies interjects into Rattigan's play an England of almost light opera, the singing occasionally punctuated by unhappy spoken words and awkward silences in which ticking clocks resound (Davies does these silences very well).
All art, is in a sense, autobiography. It could be said, without being complete pejorative, that Terrence Malick and Terence Davies make some of the most beautiful home movies known to man. But nostalgia can be a dangerous state in which to dwell. Both directors would seem frequently in danger of trying to capture something beyond their grasp, perhaps something that never quite existed as they imagine it. However, despite the outsize ambition and disconnecting cosmology of The Tree of Life, Malick connects: himself with his audience; the past and present. Most profoundly, there is the recognition that the apparent beauty and ugliness depicted in that Waco of the 1950's might be part of the same thing, a idea powerfully applied to what would seem our disparate human community.
Davies has spoken in interviews of how drab was Britain in the 1950's, how sympathetic he finds this brave character, Hester Collyer. Unfortunately, both are lost behind the gloss of his art. The peeling paint of the window frame through which Hester is first seen, the supposedly drab flat full of cigarette smoke, the fire-darkened shell of the bombed home on the block...all of these things are rendered picturesque by the director. Of course, that's always a danger when images are cast onto a big screen; everything can look romantic. It's an issue with which film directors have to contend. Davies does not seem to be winning that battle, however lovely the images continue to be.
Seeing The Deep Blue Sea is like being conducted through a carefully curated museum exhibit. One can't help but admire the craft, but it's hard to come away feeling that anything has been learned. Even worse, it leaves one feeling not much of anything at all.