The formal structure, the composed frames, the quietly static camera, the non-linear drifts through time into the recesses of memory, the calculated injection of song to thicken the theme – every Terence Davies film looks exactly the same.
When he's applying his signature style to autobiographical material, like the masterly Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the effect is bottled magic and high cinematic art. But when he's superimposing it on borrowed material, like the Southern gothic melodrama of The Neon Bible, the result can seem fatuously self-indulgent.
Happily, in his adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play, The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has found a setting close to his heart and a subject more nearly suited to his style. Here, at least, the two Terences are made for each other – not quite a love match, maybe, but a solid symbiosis.
The setting in question is Davies's period of choice: postwar England, in this case London circa 1950. His ever-stately camera wastes no time painting the scene – gloomy, brown on brown, the lens slowly panning from the bombed wreckage still on the streets up through a drab boarding house to the emotional wreckage within.
There, Hester (an achingly vulnerable Rachel Weisz) places a suicide note atop the mantle, turns on the gas meter, then lays her head down beside the vent. When her attempt fails, the tale begins. Essentially, this is a story of amour fou in a time when British women were as shackled as Britain itself – the war had been won, the peace was already lost.
Through the smoke from Hester's cigarette, and to an obtrusive violin score, Davies opens up the play's exposition by drifting (never flashing) back to her past. An airless marriage to the elder William, a respected judge (Simon Russell Beale); a lusty affair with the younger Freddie, an ex-RAF pilot mired in his own post-combat funk (Tom Hiddleston). She quit the marriage to pursue her lover, living with him in the reduced circumstances of that boarding house. Her trade-off is clear, security for passion, but so is the consequence: Passion has left her suicidal. Why and how?
Acknowledging its debt to Brief Encounter, the rest of the film tackles the answer. The problem, early on, is that Davies's inflexibly formal style is ill-suited to raising the question. Passion isn't his métier, and when trying to dramatize it – the naked entanglement on a rumpled bed – he uses an overhead shot that poses the bodies like statuary, reducing a warm-blooded tryst to a bloodless tableau. It's all pretty and Proustian, but hardly hot.
Ironically, the movie first comes alive when that stuffy old husband reappears. Turns out he's a kind cuckold, showing a real concern for his wife's despair. Their scenes together are superb, largely because Rattigan has endowed his heroine with a fascinating, paradoxical knack for applying reason to passion, for analyzing objectively the fou in the amour. Hester knows full well that she loves the uncultivated Freddie in a way that he will never love her.
What's more, she knows that such knowledge is useless – it explains everything yet helps nothing. When the judge misjudges her dilemma as "a tragedy," her reply is as wise as it is poignant: "Tragedy is too big a word." Life is a better one, and life's vicissitudes have worked their painful, illuminating transformation. Adultery has made an honest woman of Hester, but, as always, the price for honesty is steep.
Indeed, the broad notion of judgment, or its absence, is an intricate thematic thread throughout the piece. Although caring and empathetic, the judge must recuse himself – he's ignorant of passion. Once a daring flier, Freddie has lost his "nerve and judgment" at the bottom of too many whisky bottles. The boarding-house landlady, an emblem of British stoicism, refuses to judge the private lives of others: "I neither condone nor condemn."
Ultimately, it's left to Hester, trapped in the vice-grip of misguided passion, to wed the theme to the title: "It's difficult to judge when you're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea." So it is.
But my job is to judge. Luckily, on the subject of that other marriage, playwright Terence to director Terence, judgment is much easier: Theirs is a good if not perfect union, and this offspring is a chip off the old block.
The Deep Blue Sea
- Directed and written by Terence Davies
- Starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston
- Classification: 14A
- 3 stars